It's hard to begrudge the success of an Italian-American character player who doesn't bawl like a child upon winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but instead merely shuffles up the gangway to receive his statuette, whispers into the microphone, "It's my pleasure," and walks away. But when that cannoli-size performer from Jersey is Joe Pesci, and that celebrated role is in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, there's something more to the charm than off-screen bravado. Every culture needs its diminutive ethnic hero - England had its Cockney, Bob Hoskins, until Hollywood nabbed him - but for America's inexhaustable array of underdog roles, one could do plenty worse than Joe Pesci. (Even for historic losers, as Pesci's improbable but ultimately convincing David Ferrie in Oliver Stone's JFK proved.)
All of which makes Pesci's current vehicle, My Cousin Vinny, roughly as palatable - and aromatic - as ten-day-old stromboli. Wearing black-leather jackets and ties, an entire gold district's worth of medallions and solitaires, pimpish, raised-heel boots, dark glasses, and jet-black hair, Pesci looks like a cross between Manuel Noriega and Father Guido Sarducci. His performance in this movie reeks of ethnic deli-mandering posing comedic. Pesci plays Vinny Gambini, a Brooklyn lawyer of no distinction who drives down from the Big Apple to Wazoo, Alabama, with girlfriend Mona Lisa (Marisa Tomei) in tow, to defend his cousin Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Bill's friend Stanley (Mitchell Whitfield), who've been arrested on charges of homicide. (The college kids, on their way to California - through Alabama? - are accused of murdering a convenience-store clerk.)
As if you didn't know already, Vinny has his day in court. He attempts - feebly - to take on a stern, by-the-book Alabama judge named Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne) who, like Anita Hill, is a Yale Law School alumnus; there's also an aw-shucks, smoothie prosecutor (Lane Smith) who invites Vinny to go hunting as a means of mixing Southern hospitality with legalistic gamesmanship. You could call this a dung-jury courtroom saga.
Most of the time, though, what Vinny is really up against - therefore it's the intended pasta and sauce of the comedy - is the hassle of getting no sleep in one cheap motel after another, featuring loud sirens, whistles, and pigs making noise in the middle of the night. And of course, there's good ol' Alabama racism. Many of the gags involving the white-boy's network - and Vinny and Mona Lisa's response to it - are about as funny as Paul Tsongas's lymphatic cancer. (The remainder of the humor remains as promising as the Tsongas campaign's Democratic Convention hopes.)
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Now dear readers, I must make a small confession: I left My Cousin Vinny three-quarters of the way. I tried, Lord knows, I tried, but with Pesci making such a Mulberry Street ass of himself, Gwynne and Smith stumbling badly as models of gentility, and Ralph Macchio -can anything be worse than even a morsel of Macchio? - it was too much. This critic, sturdy of stomach in most other areas, could endure this putrescent hero sandwich no further. And yet, according to the Miami Herald, who awarded Vinny two-and-a-half stars last week for all of the above, I missed the best part of the meal.
Oh well, what I missed in mirth will save me a fortune - in Maalox.
MY COUSIN VINNY
Directed by Jonathan Lynn; written by Dale Launer, with Joe Pesci, Ralph Macchio, Marisa Tomei, Lane Smith, and Fred Gwynne.