My Cousin Vinny
espite America’s historical foundation as a “nation of immigrants,” its culture is often deemed bland, at best, in comparison to others. True, in the face of India’s hundreds of dialects or the thousands of individual tribes that inhabit Central Africa, America does come across as relatively homogeneous. But dismissing this country’s diversity has historically proven a mistake, one we certainly wouldn’t want to make today. Not only do cultural differences exist in America, social barriers are often steep enough to make it hard for Americans to understand one other.
There have been many contemplative, introspective films that have explored that divide, often in explosively dramatic fashion (last year’s Crash is one example). But the best of films teach and preach while the audience is otherwise entertained, and no genre encapsulates this function more seamlessly than comedy. One prime example is 1992’s My Cousin Vinny, starring Joe Pesci and Marissa Tomei. It’s a goofball comedy on some levels; after all, it was made in the midst of Pesci’s Home Alone days. But to dismiss the film as simply a solid comedy with great performances (remember that Tomei, who plays Vinny’s fiancée Lisa, stole enough scenes to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), is to overlook the intricate, if nonchalant, cultural sketch that lies within its every frame.
The setup involves two college-aged youths (“youts,” in Vinny’s strong Brooklyn accent), Billy and Stan (Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield), who make a snack stop in rural Alabama on their drive from New York to Los Angeles. They buy food at a convenience store, pay and leave, but they’re soon pulled over by the sheriff in connection with the murder of the store’s owner. Unable to front the cash for a serviceable attorney, they turn to Billy’s cousin, Vinny (Pesci), a fast-talking law school screw-up who recently cleared the bar—on his sixth attempt. With Vinny’s arrival from New York to the small Alabama town where the boys are being held begins the story of one man versus the cultural divide that separates either side of the Mason-Dixon line, a divide that has only deepened since the Civil War.
Vinny, a New Yorker down to his leather sports jacket and golden chain, wears cowboy boots to fit in down South (never mind that Alabama has no cowboys). In everything he does, he can’t help but offend his Southern hosts. Having never had a proper Southern breakfast in his life, he has to ask the cook what grits are, a faux pas anywhere below the Ohio River. And for all that celebrated “Southern hospitality,” the hosts hardly seem eager to ease the transition for Vinny. Every aspect of his experience—from roosters crowing at 5 a.m. to locals calling him a dirty Yankee—leaves him agitated, confused, and defensive.
It later becomes clear that, although the two cultures appear actively hostile, it’s all just one misunderstanding piled on top of another. Judge Haller (Fred Gwynne) takes Vinny’s courtroom attire as a personal insult, failing to realize that a leather sports jacket and cowboy boots are Vinny’s respectful attempt to impress. Elsewhere, the two defendants perceive their arrests as a setup, designed to frame New Yorkers for the murder of a “good old boy.” At one point, in a desperate plea to prove his innocence on the phone to his mother, Stan exclaims, “You know how it is down here, the Klan is here, they’re all inbred, they sleep with their sisters!” Never does it enter two defendants’ minds that their arrests, though logically misguided, are indeed part of a genuine effort to serve justice.
By the film’s end, even after Vinny’s grand triumph, the two sides still don’t really understand each other. Sure, the prosecutor warmly shakes Vinny’s hand and implores him to come back to Alabama, but all cordiality is strictly on a personal level. Their perceptions of the people from that other part of the country have likely not changed. And the two defendants, though they get off, will surely never venture into the heart of the Dixie again.
These characters clash because they don’t really know each other. But we come to understand the reasoning on both sides. For the sharp, direct, and wholly true sketches of regional attitudes and conflicts the film provides, all while successfully maintaining the low-key air that is so vital for its message to be received, My Cousin Vinny is a unique accomplishment. In both its gravity and entertainment, there really isn’t much more a film can do.
By: Imran J. Syed
Published on: 2006-07-17