Legal Movie Review: My Cousin Vinny

The time has come once again for me to write a post for the Impact Blog. And yet, my mind is an empty, barren wasteland. I’ve got nothing cooking, there’s no fuel in the tank, the store is closed, lights are off, doors are locked, we’re finished, done, kaput. I simply cannot summon forth another word of unsolicited law school advice from the darkest recesses of my weak and feeble brain to foist upon the unsuspecting masses.

What I can do is watch a legal movie, and then tell you about it. Last year, similarly incapable of riffing 500-800 words about outlining or whatever, I catalogued ten minor inaccuracies about the law school experience portrayed in the documentary feature-film Legally Blonde. This time, I’ll be comprehensively scrutinizing My Cousin Vinny, a film centered around beleaguered Italian Americans starring Joe Pesci, and therefore, I assume, directed by Martin Scorsese.

The film has an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, but an 87% rating from the general audience. Clearly, this 1% rating discrepancy is serious, and important. I’ve never seen My Cousin Vinny before, so I am left to wonder: which side has it right? The common rabble, or the professional-critic elites? Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus states, “the deft comic interplay between Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei helps to elevate My Cousin Vinny‘s predictable script, and the result is a sharp, hilarious courtroom comedy.” But are these positive words really just a smokescreen deployed by sneering reviewers in their ivory towers, as they look down upon ordinary people like you and me? Who are they to deny My Cousin Vinny the extra 1% it so obviously deserves?  

It’s an outrageous situation, made all the more befuddling by the lamestream media’s refusal to cover it, but maybe I shouldn’t assume malice where stupidity is the explanation. Maybe these movie-reviewing elites simply don’t have the legal acumen, wisdom, and perspective necessary to enjoy the film properly. Maybe, had they simply memorized the elements to adverse possession in 1L property law, they would have found an additional 1% in their condescending hearts. Or, maybe they really do have it right and the Tomatometer is functioning as an effective check against the tyranny of the majority. All we can say for sure is that whatever I wind up thinking about the movie will be 100% correct. What follows is the definitive, final word on My Cousin Vinny

It’s pretty good!

The movie is mostly about Lisa (Marisa Tomei) being extremely patient with her fiancé, the eponymous Vinny (Joe Pesci), with some other stuff going in in the background about a murder trial and cultural conflict (north vs. south, urban vs. rural, etc.).

It starts with Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield), two young New Yorkers on a road-trip to UCLA, stopping in a corner store in Alabama. The cashier tries to charge Bill full-price for a half-full Slurpee. Fortunately, the scamming cashier is killed soon thereafter, but the movie goes on to frame him as a “victim” of “murder”. In line with the urban vs. rural theme, Bill and Stan think of the southerners as backwards and prejudicial, but are proven wrong when… local police officers hold them up at gun-point and mistake their confession to shoplifting as a confession to murder. Meanwhile, the southerners think of the main cast as crude and unpolished, but are proven wrong when… Bill shoplifts in the first scene and Vinny gets held in contempt twice for wearing a leather jacket to court.

Bill and Stan are wrongfully charged for the murder, and hire Vinny as their criminal defense lawyer. Vinny is a personal injury attorney of six weeks with no trial experience who needed six attempts to pass the Bar Exam, fails to follow trial procedure, fails to cross examine adverse witnesses, gets held in contempt of court three times, repeatedly lies about his identity to the trial judge, accepts gifts from the prosecutor, badgers witnesses, and assaults some guy over a $200 pool hustle. This is mostly awesome, obviously, but at least a few of these strike me as potential professional violations. Lawyers never violate ethical rules, so the movie loses a lot of credibility here. Fortunately, it earns that credibility right back when the prosecution calls a surprise expert witness, and he has unnaturally spiky eyebrows, so you know he’s bad news.

Lisa is able to learn Alabama’s discovery disclosure rules by skimming Alabama’s Rules of Criminal Procedure in a day, the kind of cramming that law students should be able to appreciate.

Vinny is awoken in the middle of the night in a variety of ways evoking southern charm: a steam whistle, freight train, pigs oinking and owls hooting, the kind of natural sleep alarms that law students should be able to appreciate.

Stan’s public defender struggles through his opening statement, sweating profusely, stammering, and failing to say anything of substance, a public-speaking mishap that law students remembering their first cold call should be able to appreciate.

Clearly, there’s plenty to appreciate about this movie. Vinny is able to wield his lack of polish like a cudgel during the trial, dismantling the snooty prosecutor’s case and discrediting witnesses before he and Lisa use their background as auto-mechanics to prove Bill and Stan’s innocence. The good guys win, there’s a happy ending, characters make playful quips at each other and the credits role. It’s all very funny and satisfying.

Returning, however, to the deeply important question of this movie’s proper rating, I am left conflicted. On the one hand, the movie was pretty good. In fact, if I am being completely candid, I’d say that the deft comic interplay between Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei helped to elevate My Cousin Vinny‘s predictable script, and the result was a sharp, hilarious courtroom comedy. On the other hand, I will admit to some disappointment that there was no mention of adverse possession throughout its entire two-hour runtime. It’s like, what’s the point of the 1L curriculum if it doesn’t help us understand and analyze the complicated themes and social observations at play in My Cousin Vinny? Am I supposed to just laugh at the jokes and move on?

You win this time, Scorsese. All in all, I’d put My Cousin Vinny somewhere in the 85%–88% range.


Dan Riley is a third-year student at BC Law with too much time on his hands. Feel free to contact him about My Cousin Vinny or any other legally-themed movie or show he should screen at rileydh@bc.edu.

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