Fox // 1992 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // July 27th, 2000
A Comedy of Trial and Error.
Sometimes you can take a perhaps overly done type of film such as the "fish out of water" comedy, and still mine gold from it. Great performances, with just the right amount of physical comedy and quirky characters, and you get a movie that just sticks with you. My Cousin Vinny is one of those films for me. I think it a very funny movie, with an Oscar winning performance by Marisa Tomei. It is not often the Academy recognizes that comedy is tougher to do right than drama, and even go the extra step of awarding the Oscar for a comedic role. The Oscar was well deserved. Fox has now brought this fun comedy to DVD, with a sparkling anamorphic transfer and directors commentary. Color this judge happy to be at the bench today.
I am still surprised that British born director Jonathan Lynn (Distinguished Gentleman, The Whole Nine Yards) could pull off such an astute comedy about a Brooklyn mechanic-turned-lawyer working on a case in the Deep South. The characters are authentic and given sufficient depth, in nearly all cases. The story pokes some gentle fun at southern stereotypes, but only as misguided northern impression, and in fact the South is given sympathetic treatment. In fact, there really are no bad guys in this film; the cops, prosecutor, and judge are simply doing their jobs with the evidence they have.
That evidence is seemingly overwhelming. The story here is that two young men from New York (Ralph Maccio, The Karate Kid, and Mitchell Whitfield-Best Men) are driving through the south on their way to college in California, and are mistakenly identified as a pair responsible for murdering a convenience store clerk. When a frantic call home reveals there is a lawyer in the family, we get cousin Vinny, who has only recently passed the bar after 6 tries and hasn't even tried a case. Vinny (Joe Pesci), with his flamboyant fiancée Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei), arrive in rural Alabama to rescue these boys from certain conviction and the death penalty. From the moment they make their appearance, you know these two stick out like proverbial sore thumbs. And with one of the first lines from Marisa Tomei ("Oh yeah...you blend."), I knew we had some memorable characters.
Besides the fish out of water theme, the film is also working in class differences, as the decidedly blue collar Vinnie and Lisa are set up against prosecutor Jim Trotter III (Lane Smith, The Distinguished Gentleman), an old-money Southern gentleman, and Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne, The Munsters), a Yale graduate who oozes dignity and demands adherence to procedure. Of course it is their blue-collar background that ultimately becomes pivotal in the final act, a fitting turn of events in the class struggle.
Part courtroom drama, part comedy, the film works on both levels. Vinnie and Lisa are both lushly drawn characters, who live for and love to argue, which is how they ended up in this line of work. The events that follow as they try to get through this first important case, adjust to the Alabama lifestyle and maintain a relationship is a fun ride of physical and situation comedy. The dialogue, accents, and chemistry sparkle between these two Oscar winning actors. In fact, Pesci got his Oscar for GoodFellas while filming this picture. I thought Fred Gwynne was simply wonderful as the foil for Pesci, with his long face, great reactions, and slow Southern drawl. And in a cameo performance, Austin Pendleton (Amistad) is hilarious as the public defender who seems fine in person, but can't get a complete sentence out in court. But stealing the show in her moments is Marisa Tomei, in several scenes where her dialogue and diatribes just shine. Loud, profane, thoroughly Brooklyn, with a fashion sense best described as K-Mart meets Victoria's Secret, she is memorable and captivating.
The movie has plenty of tension when needed, befitting a courtroom drama. One prisoner is executed during the trial, which brings home the dire consequences for the defendants should Vinnie fail. The film seamlessly moves from such dramatic moments to funny scenes that kept me engaged and interested throughout. It remains one of my favorite comedies.
Fox does a great job with this DVD, without giving it the full special edition treatment. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very nice, with an exceptionally clean print to work from. Colors are bold, blacks and fleshtones accurate, and detail sharp. There is a bit of edge enhancement and a bit of grain here and there keeping it from reference quality, but overall the picture has never looked better. I'm very happy and satisfied with the video.
The soundtrack isn't quite as wonderful as the picture, but is still excellent. The original Dolby Surround track is given, and except for a few jarring moments when the score jumps from the rear only to disappear in a few seconds, it is fine. The front soundstage is wide and spacious, the sound is crystal clear, and dialogue is always understood. That one flaw is really the only mark against a good comedy soundtrack.
The extras are a bit light but I'm happy with what is given. Besides two TV spots and two trailers, all in full frame, is the director's commentary track. I found it highly informative and interesting, as Lynn gives plenty of instruction in how the film was made, and how to make such a film work. From camera angles to shooting schedules and light matching, it is a mini course in filmmaking. Nearly worth the price of the disc by itself, it's of course even better to be attached to such a fun movie.
There isn't much to complain about with the film itself, except perhaps that our two defendants don't really have much to do except look worried. The few scenes where they are focused on are fine, and the scene where Vinny first meets Stan (Whitfield) is simply hilarious. I don't know that it would have been possible to give the two young men more depth without taking away from the pacing of the film, so I'm satisfied even there.
I have nothing to complain about with the disc, other than a wish list for more stuff. Certainly interviews with the cast would have been great.
If you're a fan of the movie, then you should purchase this disc. I'm quite happy to have it in my collection. If you've never seen it, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a rental. I should also say for Fred Gwynne fans this was his final film before dying of cancer in 1993. He is missed.
My Cousin Vinny is completely exonerated, and Fox is likewise acquitted for at least doing the film justice. While not quite a special edition, the disc serves the public well. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Directors Commentary
* TV Spots