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This movie won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei.)

‘My Cousin Vinny’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 13, 1992

Joe Pesci is a total screen pleasure. He grabs whatever comes his way -- from "GoodFellas" to "Home Alone" -- and bullies it into something great. He's charming, menacing, and pitbullish all at the same time, a tenor-voiced imp of ceaseless energy.

In "My Cousin Vinny," he makes a silk purse out of a sow's ear. And what a pig's hearing organ it is, a stretched-out courtroom caper scripted by Dale ("Ruthless People") Launer. But as soon as Pesci appears -- frustratingly late in the movie -- he takes care of funny business.

He's an Italian lawyer from New York who has to defend two kids in big trouble down South. Seems youngsters Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield were seen leaving a foodstore right around the time the owner was shot dead in a robbery. Now they're in an Alabama jail about to be tried for murder.

When Macchio calls cousin Pesci (he's Vinny), the lawyer promises to represent them for free. But when Pesci arrives, ornery girlfriend Marisa Tomei in tow, the defendants learn the awful truth. Pesci's not a trial lawyer. He does fender-benders, stuff like that. He also failed the bar five times. More obstacles present themselves. Curmudgeonly judge Fred Gwynne is big on procedure -- specifically Alabama courtroom procedure -- and short on patience. Tough-talking, leather-jacketed Pesci is going to have to spruce up his act, act polite and read up fast on local law.

Before the trial, there is an arraignment. There is pretrial bickering between Pesci and his clients. Pesci gets jailed several times for contempt of court. He and Tomei go all over town trying to find a noise-free motel. Pesci needs time to read the Alabama book of criminal procedure. Pesci eats grits for the first time and gets picked on by rednecks. This movie just drums its fingers, waiting for the final, inevitable confrontation.

Tomei, best known for TV's "A Different World," makes a perky, tough-talking sidekick, who just happens to be a genius in auto mechanics. When Pesci calls her to the stand as an expert witness (they're having a terrible fight at the time), the bantering is ruthlessly amusing. The movie, however, is Pesci's. In that courtroom, he gets on a roll and stays rolling until the end. There's no one better with that New York-New Jersey corridor accent. "Yoots?" asks a puzzled Gwynne, interrupting Pesci's cross-examination of a witness. "What is a yoot?"

"Youths," says Pesci with considerable effort. "Youths!"

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