Monday, March 12, 2012

An Appreciation of My Cousin Vinny - Twenty Years Later

We were delighted when Jim Dedman of the Abnormal Use blog asked us to help celebrate the twentieth anniversary of My Cousin Vinny. We cannot resist smiling when we think of that movie. 1992 was a big year for some of us - marriage, changing jobs, and buying a house in LA just before the SoCal real estate market was about to take a very long, very ugly downhill run. It was our last year before big-time family responsibilities. Life seemed less serious than it does now. We filled our life with silly things, including silly movies. We had very low expectations for My Cousin Vinny before the lights went down. Most legal movies are maddeningly simplistic, even stupid. Moreover, it's not as if Joe Pesci was considered a strong movie lead - a great second banana, sure (Raging Bull), but he seemed a pure character (or caricature) actor. We had pretty much forgotten Ralph Macchio from Karate Kid. And who the heck was Marisa Tomei?

Well, we were sure going to find out. While there have been stories/rumors belittling Tomei's Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the fact is that she is superb in every way as Vinny's long-suffering fiance, Mona Lisa Vito. ("My biological clock is ticking like this! [stomping on the porch]") Tomei's career since has had some quiet times, but she was wonderful in a Seinfeld cameo, and then came back to remind us of her talents in The Wrestler. The fact is that every performance in My Cousin Vinny is spot-on perfect. Fred Gwynne is most famous for playing Herman Munster, but he will also forever be the ultimate nay-saying Judge Chamberlain Haller in My Cousin Vinny. (“What is a yute?”) It was Gwynne’s last role before he died later that year of pancreatic cancer. At one point in the film you can espy Judge Haller’s Yale diploma. In reality, Gwynne was a Harvard man. Lane Smith plays District Attorney Jim Trotter and is splendidly aggressive, effective, and, ultimately, fair-minded. Most important, Pesci was brilliant and brave and blustery and profane as Vinny LaGuardia Gambini (that name being a nice little mash-up of NYC political and criminal history).

Maybe our low expectations made us like the movie even more. We have a friend who says her favorite movie this year was The Help. She saw it on cable, well after it had been pooh-poohed by many cinema and cultural critics. But she simply liked the story and the acting. By contrast, she had paid bigger bucks for movie-nights-out to see The Descendants and The Artist, and found them underwhelming. So maybe My Cousin Vinny gets something of a free ride by being the little movie that could.

But we think there's more to it than that. If you compare My Cousin Vinny against the other movies in 1992 that earned Oscars, such as Scent of a Woman, Unforgiven, Aladdin, The Player, and Howard's End -- well, which would you rather watch this Friday night? My Cousin Vinny holds up well. There have occasionally been hints of a sequel. As we found out in a couple of posts a couple of weeks ago, sequels misfire more often than not. While we wouldn't mind spending more time with Vinny and Mona Lisa, we tremble at the prospect of some opportunistic piece of dreck ruining them.

We are also fond of the Alabama setting for My Cousin Vinny. By sheer happenstance, we have had a lot of experience with cases in Alabama and working with Alabama lawyers. Again, maybe it's just happenstance, but our experiences have invariably been good and pleasurable. All the Alabama lawyers we've dealt with have been smart, hard-working, and personable. They have been polite and creative and funny. Once, a Birmingham lawyer helped us explore famous legal history by taking us to Ollie's Barbecue, which was the subject of a famous civil rights case. See Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294 (1964). Sure enough it was (we don't think it exists anymore) close to an interstate highway, which was part of the Supreme Court's commerce clause analysis. Plus, the pulled pork was delectable, especially doused with the vinegary sauce. (If there's one thing we love more than the law it's good BBQ. If we ever write about The Firm, expect a long reverie on great Memphis BBQ joints like Corky's and The Rendezvous. And when are our Shook friends going to take us to Arthur Bryant's, or that BBQ place at a gas station?)

Further, the most famous fictional lawyer-hero in American history is from Alabama. Actually, make that hero, period, not just lawyer-hero. The American Film Institute conducted a poll and ranked Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird as the number one movie hero ever, ahead of James Bond and Indiana Jones. While Atticus Finch is fictional, he was based on Harper Lee's real-life lawyer dad. When we were a hiring partner, the University of Alabama Law School sent us a special edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. We treasure it still. So, yeah, we like Alabama a lot. We get the feeling that Vinny ended up liking it a lot, too. (All that being said, we hear the movie was shot in Georgia.)

We have taught some classes in trial advocacy and have sometimes found it useful to present film clips. Showing is better than telling. But there aren't many useful film clips from actual trials. So we turn to movies and tv. Those made-up trials aren't realistic. There is necessarily a lot of compression in movies and tv. Document reviews and seven-hour depositions are blissfully absent. Opening statements are three minutes, not three hours, long. And, lo and behold, they always seem better than real life. Here's the surprise: My Cousin Vinny offers more useful examples of effective trial advocacy than just about any other film. Start with the prosecutor's opening statement. It is really short and really effective. Lane Smith tells the story of the robbery in simple, concrete terms, and emphasizes the unique appearance of the getaway car. He varies his pace and modulation. He raises his voice only when describing the shots ringing out. He tells a story without wasting a moment. When we prosecuted cases, we were taught to refer to "the defendants," and never to dignify them with their names. But the DA in My Cousin Vinny repeatedly mentions the names of the defendants, Rothenstein and Gambini, as if reminding the jury of the defendants' otherness. If you compare the prosecutor's opening statement with that from another 1992 film, A Few Good Men, you'll probably prefer the Alabama prosecutor to the slick military prosecutor played by Kevin Bacon.

Our favorite object-lessons from My Cousin Vinny involve Vinny's cross-examinations of the three prosecution eye-witnesses. The first cross-examination, of Mr. Tipton, is the only one that gets combative. Sometimes it is okay to bully a witness. Vinny shows that the witness did not have the time to observe the comings and goings at the Sac-O-Suds. It all comes down to how long it takes to make grits from scratch. (Vinny: “Oh, you like grits? I like grits too. How do you like your grits? Regular, creamy, or al dente?”) Earlier in the movie, Vinny got into a conversation with a local about how to make grits. Perhaps you can chalk it up to coincidence. Only in the movies, right? Maybe not. When you are at trial, you need to immerse yourself in the facts of the case, all sorts of facts. You need to visit the scene and you need to be open to all sorts of things. You never know what will become important. Sometimes just showing a witness that you know all sorts of things makes them worry you know other truths, and makes them compliant. Vinny plays on Mr. Tipton’s pride in his grits preparation, and then undermines his testimony with well-earned ridicule (“Do the laws of physics somehow cease to operate in your kitchen?”).

Our favorite cross-examination is the second one, of Mr. Crane. Vinny slices and dices an eyewitness by showing that his view was necessarily obscured. The beauty of the cross-examination is how Vinny lingers over his good points. Instead, of merely challenging the witness by saying in one ham-handed swoop that the witness could not have had a good view through a dirty window and past trees and bushes, Vinny brings out each obstruction gradually. He makes the witness count the trees and bushes. Then he repeats these good facts slowly and elegantly, laying out photographs one by one:"You could positively identify the defendants for a moment of two seconds looking through this dirty window, this crud-covered screen, these trees with all those leaves, and I don’t know how many bushes [makes Mr. Crane count them, even correcting him]?" That is a technique available to every trial lawyer: find your good points and emphasize them through repetition and slowing things down.

In the third cross examination, of Mrs. Constance Riley, Vinny shows that an old lady's eyesight was inadequate for her to identify the defendants. Nothing special here -- it's mostly a matter of good luck. But watch how nice Vinny is to the witness. (Vinny: “What do you think now, dear?" Mrs. Riley: “I'm thinking of getting thicker glasses.”) Sometimes you do better with a light hand than with bullying.

You can learn a lot from My Cousin Vinny, and it's an enjoyable education. Do not underrate it because it is a comedy. We remember how police officer friends of ours used to tell us all the time that the Barney Miller sitcom was way more realistic than any cops-and-robbers-shoot-em-up about what law enforcement people actually do on a day-to-day basis. In the August 2008 edition of the ABA Journal, My Cousin Vinny was ranked as the third greatest legal movie, after To Kill a Mockingbird and Twelve Angry Men. It’s hard to argue with that.

When we teach trial advocacy and use clips from My Cousin Vinny, we often contrast it with older depictions of trials that aren't nearly as realistic or useful. When we were kids, our image of lawyers came from the old tv show, Perry Mason. If we say the name "Perry Mason" to the Drug and Device Law Daughter, we get a blank look. It's hard for us to imagine this, but she has no idea who that is. For our generation, Perry Mason made us think that a cross-examination was not effective unless it turned the witness into a blubbering puddle, confessing to murder. Most lawyers have never had what some of us still call a "Perry Mason moment."

Perry Mason and My Cousin Vinny seem as different as night and day. But not everything about Perry Mason was hokum. The legal discussions are usually correct. And the judges in the old tv series aren't too different in demeanor from what we encounter in an average courtroom. A couple of actors rotated playing the judge in Perry Mason episodes. Our favorite was a sort of tough judge, who glared a lot and often shut down prosecutor Hamilton Burger's objections. The actor was S. John Launer, who kept busy as an actor, mostly in smaller parts. He was in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Jailhouse Rock, Marnie, and other crucial bits of mid-century American culture. You might not ever have heard of S. John Launer until today. But he did good, honorable work. He also had a son who was bitten by the entertainment bug. His son was Dale Launer. Dale Launer wrote screenplays. One of those screenplays was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin.

Another was My Cousin Vinny.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent review of a fantastic movie.

Anne Stuart said...

I was just probably three years old when this movie was shown in the cinemas. I just decided to watch the movie simply because I loved Marisa Tomei in Only You. Then, when I saw the movie, I just fell in love with Joe Pesci. And it will always be a classic.