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My Cousin Vinny's courtroom is funny, but unrealistic

My Cousin Vinny
Directed by Jonathan Lynn.
Written by Dale Launer.
Starring Joe Pesci, Ralph Macchio,
and Marisa Tomei.

By Danny Su

Arts Staff

The press kit for My Cousin Vinny reads, "There have been many courtroom dramas that have glorified the great American legal system. My Cousin Vinny isn't one of them." Yes, this film does not glorify the American legal system. In fact, the movie simply lacks any substance other than the performance of Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei. As with most courtroom dramas, My Cousin Vinny relies on the pretense that the audience lacks any knowledge of courtroom procedures. Unfortunately, I do have some ideas about how the legal system operates. Still, I do find My Cousin Vinny to be a funny yet unrealistic courtroom drama.

Joe Pesci, who won an Oscar for his role in Goodfellas, plays a New York lawyer, Vincent Gambini, who attempts to defend two college kids who are charged with murder in a small town in Alabama. Unfortunately, he has never tried a case before, and it has taken him six attempts to pass the bar exam.

Although Pesci is fabulous, Vincent Gambini does not come across as a convincing character. First, Gambini lacks knowledge of even the simplest courtroom procedures. When asked by the judge (Fred Gwynne) whether his clients will plead guilty or not guilty during the arraignment, Vincent tries to argue the case instead of simply saying "not guilty." Despite numerous instructions from the judge, Vincent does not follow standard procedure and is eventually found in contempt of court - a common occurrence for him. The movie would then have us believe that Vincent is so stupid he does not know the prosecution must disclose all information to him. If he truly is that incompetent, then the judge should have ordered someone else to represent the defendants because they are not being represented. Of course, such incidents never do occur and Vincent is given the chance of learning on the fly.

Fortunately, Stan (Mitchell Whitfield), one of the two defendants, is alarmed by Vincent's incompetence and requests a public defender. Although the public defender looks smooth and able, he has one minor problem. He gets very nervous in court and stutters. As a result of his incoherent speech, he gets nothing accomplished. Well, maybe there are people who share the same problem, but how could the state of Alabama be so blind as to make him a public defender and jeopardize the rights of the accused?

As the trial moves on, Vincent suddenly becomes the best attorney money can buy. He completely destroys every prosecuting witness on cross-examinations. One is forced to contradict his previous testimony, one is forced to admit that he identified the defendant through stained windows and trees, and one is found to have eyeglasses that are heavily underprescribed. This is the best part of the movie, as Pesci makes Vincent come alive and dazzles us with his street smarts. Unfortunately, we have seen a complete transformation of Vincent in one day as he goes from a completely incompetent fool to the Clarence Darrow of the '90s. I find this turnaround to be as convincing as the idea of a constant MIT tuition. Furthermore, if the witnesses' testimonies were not credible, then why were they called by the district attorney to testify? I find it hard to believe that a district attorney would press charges when he knows he does not have a case at all.

If you do not particularly care for courtroom procedure and reality, you could potentially find this movie to be entertaining. And if you love to play with cars, you will find the latter part of the movie to be an enjoyable experience as Vincent's fiancee, played by Marisa Tomei, describes and compares car performances in great detail during her testimony. Unfortunately, Tomei and Pesci are the only bright spots in a movie that is plagued by a badly written script. Their dialogues are humorous, and their presence makes the film look better than it actually is.