My Cousin Vinny

vincent laguardia gambini

My Cousin Vinny‘ is a 1992 American comedy film written by Dale Launer (‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,’ ‘Ruthless People’), directed by Jonathan Lynn (‘Clue,’ ‘The Whole Nine Yards’), and starring Joe Pesci, Ralph Macchio, Marisa Tomei, and Fred Gwynne (best known for playing Herman Munster; the film was Gwynne’s final role before his death the following year).

‘My Cousin Vinny’ is the story of two young New Yorkers traveling through rural Alabama who are put on trial for a murder they did not commit, and the comic attempts of a cousin, Vincent Gambini, a newly minted lawyer, to defend them. Much of the humor comes from the contrasting personalities of the brash Italian-American New Yorkers, Vinny and his fiancée Mona Lisa Vito, and the more reserved Southern townspeople.

Lawyers have praised the comedy’s realistic depiction of courtroom procedure and trial strategy. Pesci and Tomei received critical praise for their performances, and Tomei won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

While driving through the fictional Beechum County, Alabama, NYU students and friends Billy Gambini and Stan Rothenstein accidentally neglect to pay for a can of tuna after stopping at a convenience store. After they leave the store, the clerk is shot and killed, and Billy and Stan, who match the descriptions of the murderers given by witnesses, are then pulled over and detained in connection with the murder. Due to circumstantial evidence and a series of miscommunications based on the boys’ assumption that they have merely been detained for shoplifting, Billy ends up being charged with murder, and Stan is charged as an accessory. The pair call Billy’s mother, who tells her son that there is an attorney in the family, Billy’s cousin, Vincent LaGuardia ‘Vinny’ Gambini, who travels to Beechum County accompanied by his fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito. Unfortunately, although he is willing to take the case, Vinny is a personal injury lawyer from Brooklyn, New York, newly admitted to the bar (after six attempts and six years) with no trial experience, who worked his way through law school as a mechanic (Ms. Vito is also a mechanic).

Although Vinny manages to fool the trial judge, Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne), about being experienced enough to take the case, his ignorance of basic court procedures and abrasive, disrespectful attitude towards the judge gets him into trouble immediately. Much to his clients’ consternation, Vinny does not cross-examine any of the witnesses in the probable cause hearing. As their claims go unquestioned, it appears that the district attorney, Jim Trotter III has an airtight case that will inevitably lead to a conviction at the trial. After Vinny’s poor showing at the hearing, Stan decides to fire him and use the public defender, and nearly convinces Billy to do the same, but Vinny asks for one more chance to prove himself. The trial then opens with Vinny representing his cousin and the public defender representing Stan. Despite some further missteps, including wearing a gaudy secondhand tuxedo to court and sleeping through Trotter’s opening statement, Vinny shows that he can make up for his ignorance and inexperience with an aggressive, perceptive questioning style. While the public defender is shown stammer nervously in the courtroom, Vinny quickly and comprehensively discredits the testimony of the first witness. Billy’s faith is restored, and Stan develops newfound respect and confidence for Vinny, firing the public defender.

Vinny’s cross-examinations of the remaining eyewitnesses are similarly effective, but Trotter produces a surprise witness, George Wilbur, an FBI analyst who testifies that his chemical analysis of the tire marks left at the crime scene shows that they are identical to the tires on Billy’s Buick Skylark. With only a brief recess to prepare his cross-examination and unable to come up with a particularly strong line of questions, Vinny becomes frustrated and lashes out at Lisa by taunting her about the usefulness of her wide-angle photographs of the tire tracks. She storms out, leaving Vinny alone. However, he soon realizes that that photo actually holds the key to the case: the flat and even tire marks going over the curb reveal that Billy’s car could not have been used for the getaway, since Billy’s Skylark does not have a Positraction rear differential, hence is unable to create such marks. Since he cannot testify to this himself, Vinny needs Lisa, who is also a former mechanic, to do so. After requesting research from the local sheriff (later revealed to be a records search for a stolen Pontiac Tempest) Vinny drags a still upset Lisa into court to testify about the tire tracks given her experience as a mechanic. During Vinny’s questioning, Lisa comes to the same conclusion regarding the tire marks and testifies accordingly. Vinny recalls the FBI analyst, who is forced to corroborate Lisa’s testimony. Next, Vinny calls the local sheriff, who has run the records request. The sheriff testifies that two men resembling Billy and Stan were arrested driving a stolen Pontiac Tempest, a car very similar in appearance and color to Billy’s Skylark, and in possession of a gun of the same caliber used to kill the clerk. Trotter then respectfully moves to dismiss all the charges.

Throughout the film, Vinny and Judge Haller play a game of cat-and-mouse over Vinny’s qualifications. Haller first discovers that, despite Vinny’s claims that he tried ‘quite a few’ murder cases, there exist no records of anybody named Vincent Gambini trying any case in New York State. Vinny then claims that he had his name changed during a previous career as a stage actor and continued to use the name when he opened a law practice. Vinny, believing that he should give the judge the name of someone with the kind of resume he claimed to have, supplies the name of a prominent New York attorney, Jerry Gallo. Unfortunately, Lisa later tells Vinny that Gallo died the previous week, and when Haller learns this, Vinny claims that Haller misheard ‘Gallo’ when Vinny actually said ‘Callo.’ Finally, Lisa clears Vinny’s standing by calling his mentor, Judge Malloy from New York, who responds to Haller’s request by claiming that Jerry Callo has a long and impressive trial history.

The film concludes with Haller apologizing for doubting Vinny and praising his skills as a litigator. Trotter also congratulates Vinny and wishes him well. Vinny tells Haller ‘and you’re one hell of a judge’ and shakes hands with Trotter. Vinny and Lisa then drive off together, bickering about their future wedding plans.

Director Jonathan Lynn has a law degree from Cambridge University, and lawyers have praised the accuracy of his portrayal of courtroom procedure and trial strategy, with one stating that ‘[t]he movie is close to reality even in its details. Part of why the film has such staying power among lawyers is because, unlike, say, ‘A Few Good Men,’ everything that happens in the movie could happen — and often does happen — at trial.’ One legal textbook uses the film as an ‘extremely helpful introduction to the art of presenting expert witnesses at trial,’ and criminal defenders, law professors, and other lawyers use the film to demonstrate voir dire and cross examination.

One law professor stated that ‘My Cousin Vinny’ is useful for discussing: criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, the role of the judge in a trial, efficient cross-examination, the role of expert witnesses and effective trial advocacy. The professor added that, ‘Vinny is terrible at the things we do teach in law school, but very good at the things we don’t’: ‘[How to] interview clients, to gather facts, to prepare a theory of a case, to negotiate, to know when to ask a question and when to remain quiet, to cross examine a witness forcefully (but with charm) in order to expose the weaknesses in their testimony.’

United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has cited ‘My Cousin Vinny’ as an example of the principle that a client can choose his own lawyer. Lynn, an opponent of capital punishment, believes that the film expresses an anti-death penalty message without ‘preaching to people,’ and demonstrates the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Lawyers find the film appealing, according to the director, because ‘there aren’t any bad guys,’ with the judge, prosecutor, and Vinny all seeking justice. Lynn stated that both he and Launer sought to accurately depict the legal process in Vinny, favorably comparing it to ‘Trial and Error,’ for which he could not make what he believed were necessary changes.

Pesci later reprised the Vincent LaGuardia Gambini character for his album, ‘Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You,’ which contains the song ‘Yo, Cousin Vinny.’ The album cover portrays Pesci in a red suit similar to the usher suit he wore in the film.

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3 Comments to “My Cousin Vinny”

  1. I actually watched this film a few weeks back and it is quite funny :O)

  2. What I want to know is, how is it that Marisa Tomei looks, like, exactly the same now as she did in this movie? How old is she anyway?

  3. One of my favorite movies, love it!!!

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