Friday, August 14, 2009

On DVD: "My Cousin Vinny"

I would be surprised to learn that the executives at Fox had terribly high hopes for My Cousin Vinny; the mid-range, high concept, fish-out-of-water comedy was probably intended to open soft, make a few bucks, and leave it at that. It was directed by a British director with only two previous credits. Its leading man, Joe Pesci, was on the rise after supporting roles in Lethal Weapon 2 and GoodFellas, but was certainly not a “star” by any conventional wisdom. The only other marquee name in the cast was Ralph Macchio, three years past the third (flop) Karate Kid film.

Then, while shooting My Cousin Vinny, Pesci won an Oscar for GoodFellas—and suddenly Fox had an Academy Award winning actor fronting their little comedy. And then they got a look at his co-star, the little-known TV actress who was playing his fiancée, and they saw something very interesting. A year later, Academy voters would as well, when they awarded Marisa Tomei the Oscar for that year’s Best Supporting Actress (well, at least, you believe that’s what happened if you don’t spend too much time on the Internet).

With a few years of distance, the flaws of Jonathan Lynn’s comedy are a bit more apparent, but what worked then holds up—it’s a genuinely funny courtroom comedy, given some honest-to-God substance by striking just the right note in the relationship between Pesci and Tomei. Its opening scenes are somewhat labored; we meet Billy Gambini (Macchio) and his friend Stan Rothstein (Mitchell Whitfield) as they drive through Alabama and accidently confess to a murder, believing they’ve been stopped for shoplifting. Screenwriter Dale Launer (Ruthless People, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) was usually skilled at creating comedy from the language used in mix-ups, but he misfires here, and Lynn and his cast can’t pull it up from the sitcom level it’s pitched at.

But once Pesci and Tomei appear, all is forgiven. Pesci is Billy’s cousin, Vincent Laguardia Gambini, a law school grad who, come to find out, took six tries to pass the bar and has taken this on as his first trial case. Tomei is Mona Lisa Vito, his longtime fiancée, who accompanies him for moral and, ultimately, investigative support. The pair comes on like gangbusters, snapping at each other with crackerjack comic timing. They’re both playing broad characters (made even broader by the costume and hair design), yet somehow, in spite of her mile-high crispy bangs and his leather jackets and their over-the-top Brooklyn accents, they make these stereotypes into wonderfully original comic creations—primarily by imbuing them with a genuine humanity and sweetness. Around the midway mark, there is a scene where he confesses to her that he’s scared that he’s going to lose; earlier, there is an argument over a dripping faucet that turns into both foreplay and an examination of exactly how their relationship ticks. These are the kind of scenes that most lightweight comedies would leave out (and consequently run much shorter than My Cousin Vinny’s admittedly indulgent 119 minutes), but they lend a believability to their relationship that ups the stakes and heightens our emotional investment. We’re rooting for these two, and that’s a smart dynamic to take into the courtroom scenes; when Vinny finally finds his footing and announces, after finishing a successful cross-examination, “I got no more use for this guy,” we’re right there with him.

Those courtroom scenes are well-handled by director Lynn (Clue, The Whole Nine Yards), who wisely fills the cast with outstanding character actors like Lane Smith, James Rebhorn, Bruce McGill, and the late Fred Gwynne (in his final film performance). Launer’s script and Lynn’s direction allow them to play these characters as real people instead of Southern-fried jackasses; there is a decency to these men that keeps the picture from degenerating into a stacked deck of Dixie caricaturing.

Launer’s script juggles an assortment of running jokes (Vinny’s sleep deprivation; his inappropriate courtroom attire; the payback of a hustle debt) with aplomb, and the film’s justifiably celebrated climax is a real treat—the writing is sharp, the direction is solid, and Pesci and Tomei couldn’t be better. The sequence is charming and smart and laugh-out-loud funny, and, at its best, so is the film.

My Cousin Vinny isn’t a perfect comedy—it takes too long to get going, it relies too heavily in its first act on goofy “misunderstanding” comedy, and its bulky running time is a little slack. (Oh, and don’t even get me started on the terrible country songs that open and close the picture.) The Blu-ray disc’s extras are nothing to write home about, and the video quality is a little underwhelming. But the film itself holds up quite well, and the performances of stars Pesci and Tomei are just as fresh and enjoyable as when the picture first unspooled.

"My Cousin Vinny" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, August 4th.

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