04 July 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: My Cousin Vinny

Compulsory Fan-art: Fred Gwynne as Judge Haller.

My Cousin Vinny – Released 1992 by Twentieth Century Fox Written by Dale Launer. Two touring New Yorkers are accused of murder while passing through Alabama. They’re only hope lies with Vinny Gambini, possibly the world’s worst lawyer.

Launer’s script starts out with a strong inciting incident: College kids Stan and Bill are arrested and booked for murder. The stakes start high and get higher. Every dramatic device is clear and strongly stated: Vinny’s dramatic need, the obstacles to that end , rising stakes and an ending climax that reincorporates both plot and character. My Cousin Vinny could very well be re-titled “Hollywood Screenwriting 101”. Whether that's a jibe or compliment (hint: it's a compliment) depends on one's tastes as a moviegoer, I suppose.

However, the subplot where Vinny’s harassed by a local itching to start a fight slows things down. In the movie, Vinny’s finance’, Lisa (Marisa Tomei) takes Vinny to a bar to settle a pool debt. A local good ‘ol boy refuses to pay up, and Vinny negotiates the terms of ass-kicking and payment. The scene shows Vinny being competent, so as not to lose all credibility with the audience. And it would be great if the scene ended there. But the pool shark is made into a running gag and periodically pops up to annoy Vinny (and the audience). The movie has pretty deliberate pacing as is, with repetitive legal proceedings determining the structure, and the pool shark sub plot distracts and just slows things down even more.

Overall, “My Cousin Vinny” is an excellent film due to its fantastic casting! Everybody from Joe Pesci as Vinny to Austin Pendleton as the one-scene-wonder Public Defender deliver top-notch performances, but I really have to stop and just spew some admiration for Fred Gwynne as Judge Haller. Gwynne’s damn intimidating, which is a little weird coming from a guy best known as Herman Munster. Gwynne’s choices, from his deliberate, high-status movement to the way he rests his head on his hand, make him seem every inch the terrifying first grade school teacher, if that school teacher had the power to throw you in jail and sentence you to death.

“My Cousin Vinny” is probably Jonathan Lynn’s first qualified US success. Produced in the US (As opposed to "Nuns" produced in Great Britian by none other than George Harrison), "Vinny" made back it’s budget in the first theatrical run (Approximately $53,000,000 gross over a $11,000,000 budget), and nabbing a supporting Actress Award for Marisa Tomei.

By the way, did you notice that this is, like, the third light comedy this guy's made that opens with a violent death? What's with that?

1 comment:

  1. I've only ever seen this movie once, one of the 346,897,301,782,693,002 times they played it on Comedy Central. The fact that it was on cable certainly limited the experience (if not possibly lowered my expectations because of the network), but I remember thinking it was a really solid movie, probably because, as you said, it's sort of Screenwriting 101.

    And to add on to that, I have lately been hypothesizing that the key to making a really really great film is to follow a lot of the rules, but also break a bunch in a interesting way. If a movie is the perfect example of every aspect of filmmaking, well, it's a pretty good movie, but it's forgettable. When it starts doing things wrong and that makes it more interesting, then you've really got something. I think you could apply that hypothesis to Vinny.