'My Cousin Vinny' is a pleasant enough comedy about a woefully inept yet street-smart lawyer who, with the help of his savvy, gum-smacking girlfriend, tries to save a family member from a bogus murder rap. It's not a classic by any means, but thanks to the outrageous urban legend it innocently spawned, Jonathan Lynn's innocuous farce will forever live in infamy. Of course, the notion that Marisa Tomei somehow nabbed her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film by mistake is about as implausible as the movie's story, yet the pesky rumor persists that presenter Jack Palance read the wrong name when he announced the winner on national television, and no one ever corrected the error. (Like that would ever happen!) Yes, Tomei was a dark horse that year and her surprise victory shocked both audience dignitaries and average home viewers, but weirder things have happened at the Oscars, and the erupting controversy only served to spotlight an otherwise forgettable film and performance.
Now before anyone cries foul, let me say I consider Tomei to be one of America's finest actresses, and her superb turns in 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' and 'The Wrestler' back up the claim. But let's face it, while she's a bubbly, engaging, wisecracking presence in 'My Cousin Vinny,' her performance hardly seems worthy of filmdom's ultimate prize, especially when measured against the work of such heavyweight fellow nominees as Vanessa Redgrave, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, and Judy Davis. Tomei's spot-on portrayal of Mona Lisa Vito, an Italian princess from Queens who's a heck of a lot smarter than she looks (and whose mile-a-minute mouth can spout a litany of automobile specs and statistics without missing a beat), earns a few chuckles and a lot of affection, but an Academy Award? Hey, maybe something fishy really was going on backstage at the Oscars after all!
Coincidentally or not, something fishy also gets New York transplants Billy Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stan Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) in hot water in the film. When the pair stops at an Alabama convenience store for some on-the-go snacks on their way to UCLA, little do they know a mistakenly stolen can of tuna will lead to a whopper of a misunderstanding… and a murder charge. Billy makes his one jailhouse phone call to his mom, who recommends his cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci) as legal counsel, but after Vinny and his girlfriend (Tomei) arrive in the Deep South, it soon becomes apparent the fast-talking, flashy lawyer – who failed the bar exam five times and has never tried a case in court! – is in way over his head. The local prosecutors expect an open-and-shut case; Vinny, on the other hand, hopes a crash course in Southern culture and legalese will give him the tools he needs to save his clients from the electric chair.
Like the screwball comedies of yore, mix-ups and miscommunication fuel the plot and provide plenty of humorous fodder. (The film's funniest scene, which unfortunately transpires far too early, finds newly incarcerated Stan mistaking Vinny for a sex-hungry prison thug.) The stranger-in-a-strange-land premise works well, too, and though the Alabama natives depicted in the picture are much kinder and gentler than their redneck Arkansas counterparts in 'Deliverance,' the contrast is still stark enough to engender a few laughs. Jokes, however, taper off as the action shifts to the courtroom, and the lack of any sharp edge or ferocious bite keeps 'Vinny' from attaining elite comic status.
Performances, of course, are key to the film's success, and Pesci, just like he did in 'GoodFellas' and 'Lethal Weapon 2', makes an obnoxious character likeable. Quintessentially Queens, the actor nicely clashes with the down-home Southerners, and his nasal New York twang offsets their lazy Dixie drawl well. Pesci, of course, is always Pesci; he's such a character himself, he never really needs to create one from scratch, and he and Tomei often recall Nathan and Adelaide from 'Guys and Dolls,' with their ceaseless bickering, whining, and pre-marital woes. Fred Gwynne as the implacable Southern judge and the always hysterical Austin Pendleton as a stuttering co-defense attorney provide extra comic sparks.
Like Tomei's portrayal, 'My Cousin Vinny' is fun while it lasts, but quickly fades from memory. It's too bad the Oscar nonsense hangs over this largely enjoyable film, though it does add an intriguing element to what's really just a standard comedy.
Though 'My Cousin Vinny' looks far from perfect on Blu-ray, it sports a better than anticipated transfer, especially for a 17-year-old catalogue title. The source material exhibits none of the wear and tear one might expect; in fact, it's tough to spot even tiny print blemishes. Grain is noticeable, but blends in well and never distracts from the action on screen, and thanks to well-modulated contrast, the image always appears vibrant. Whites are stunningly bright and crisp, and though black levels never achieve the inky depth we desire, they're still solid and pleasing throughout.
Unfortunately, a prevailing softness plagues this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode and keeps the picture from achieving the dazzling razor sharpness that distinguishes the best high-def transfers. Don't get me wrong, clarity is quite good overall, but medium and long shots never exhibit the strong detail levels we crave. Some digital noise creeps in now and then as well, most notably during the courtroom scenes, which also suffer from a nagging haziness. Colors are generally vivid, though saturation levels tend to fluctuate – Tomei's red dress looks brilliantly bold in the courtroom, but pales significantly when she ventures outdoors in the next scene. The greens of the Alabama landscape, however, always appear lush.
Fox deserves kudos, though, for preserving the movie's natural look, and steering clear of additional processing to sharpen up the existing image. This is definitely a worthy upgrade from standard DVD, and should please the film's fans.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track gives us plenty of bang for our buck, especially during the film's opening sequences. The surrounds kick in with surprising oomph, emitting distinct directional effects that make us feel as if we're in the thick of the action. Even during less lively scenes, subtle atmospherics, such as chirping birds, gently envelop. Annoying accents like squealing pigs and steam whistles cut through the soundscape with palpable force, while a rumbling freight train provides a decent sampling of bass. The Southern rock tunes also enjoy good sonic heft, exhibiting fine fidelity and an expansive feel.
Dialogue is always properly prioritized and easy to understand, and the various vocal timbres, from Pesci's high-pitched whine to Tomei's sassy New Yawk inflections, are well reproduced. Though the surround activity drops off significantly during the movie's second half, this is still a strong audio effort. Without question, 'My Cousin Vinny' has never sounded better.
Pretty slim pickings, but for a minor catalogue title it's not that surprising.
You won't find 'My Cousin Vinny' on any list of classic comedies, but it remains a fun diversion with a few humorous sequences. Pesci, Tomei, and company keep it chugging along smoothly, and decent video and audio make this Blu-ray a nice step up from the standard DVD. Worth a rental for sure.
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