The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: My Cousin Vinny

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Looking over the ABA’s Top 25 Legal Movies, you notice that there are plenty of procedurals, thrillers, and melodramas, but relatively few comedies. Why is that? Maybe comedy and the law are just an unnatural pairing. A courtroom, like a church, is not a place where you’re supposed to laugh.

Or maybe the reason filmmakers don’t make more courtroom comedies is that the perfect one has already been made. I’m speaking, of course, of…

My Cousin Vinny
1992 dir. Jonathan Lynn

I saw “My Cousin Vinny” nearly a dozen times over the course of my childhood, so I probably could have written this review from memory. But in the interest of rigor – The Greatest Lawyer Movie of All Time is not a title to be conferred casually – I re-watched it last night for the first time in years, and I’m glad I did. It is even better than I remembered.

Here’s the setup: Two New Yorkers, Bill and Stan, are road tripping through Alabama. They stop for groceries and Bill slips a can of tuna into his pocket. He’s not stealing; it’s just that his hands are full. When they’re a few miles down the road, he remembers the tuna and realizes he forgot to pay for it. Then they notice a cop car approaching behind them. They joke nervously – what do they do to tuna thieves in Alabama? Next thing they know, they’re arrested at gunpoint and taken to the local station. It’s only after they confess – yeah, they did it, what’s the big deal? – that they realize they’re not there for petty theft. Evidently, shortly after they left the store, someone shot they clerk, and they just confessed to the murder.

They need a lawyer, but their resources are limited. Then Bill remembers: his cousin is a lawyer! After a few phone calls, Vinny (Joe Pesci) shows up, along with his fiancé Lisa (Marisa Tomei). They’re Bill and Stan’s only hope – the prosecution is going to ask for the electric chair – but it turns out Vinny has spent the last few years failing the bar (“sixth time was the charm”) and this is his first case.

I could go on and on about how ingeniously clever the plotting is – how every gag pays off in an unexpected way, how so many scenes work on multiple levels, and all lines converge for an incredibly satisfying final act – but I don’t want to give it away. So I’ll just say that the screenplay by Dale Launer (who also wrote “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) is a paragon of wit and craft. Meanwhile, Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei do iconic work bringing the script to life – they’re amazing.

Like many other lawyer movies, “My Cousin Vinny” is, at its heart, an underdog story. At first, Vinny doesn’t know what he’s doing, and his fish-out-of-water manners only make things worse. It’s hilarious. But there’s one problem: what about the two kids whose lives are hanging in the balance? A lesser movie would have avoided the issue by verging into farce, but “My Cousin Vinny” stays grounded. At one point, Bill and Stan get scared and think about firing Vinny. He still doesn’t know how to talk in court, or how to dress, or plead at an arraignment. But, as it turns out, he knows how to argue. He refuses to be fired and convinces his cousin to keep him on. In so doing, he shows glimmers of his potential. He might really make a great lawyer after all. And so “My Cousin Vinny” pulls off a difficult balancing act: you believe in Vinny even as you laugh at him.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch represented one archetype of a great lawyer: he is society’s conscience, the good man with a good heart who can speak directly to the better angels of our nature. In “My Cousin Vinny,” Vinny Gambini represents another: he’s the nitpicker, the nag, the kind of guy who won’t let the tiniest detail go and will prove his point in the end by just wearing you down. If you get arrested in Alabama for a murder you didn’t commit, you could do much worse.

The jury is still out on The Greatest Lawyer Movie of All Time – I still have more to watch – but “My Cousin Vinny” is going to be tough to beat. Rent it as soon as possible.

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