A few years back the ABA Journal ranked the 25 “greatest lawyer films”. Surprisingly the low budget My Cousin Vinny was ranked third. The movie relates the adventures of neophyte lawyer Vinny Gambino when he and his fiancee Lisa travel to Alabama so Vinny can defend his cousin who is falsely accused of murder.
There’s a lot to like in the film. The repartee between Vinny (Joe Pesci) and Lisa ( Maria Tomei) is very funny. And the audience also enjoys the contrast between the brash style of these born and bred New Yorkers and the more polite demeanor of the Southerners they encounter. But I think the true comic genius of the film is its portrayal of the shock Vinny (who has never tried a case) suffers when he enters a court of law, a foreign land with its own peculiar language and rituals.
Vinny soon discovers that in lawland form trumps substance. The judge insists that everything conforms to time honored rules and rituals. One issue is attire. Vinny goes through several changes of wardrobe before the judge is satisfied that he is properly attired for court. And Vinny also discovers that the judge insists that precise verbal formulas be followed in addressing he court .And since the judge punishes any departure from proper form by a summary citation for contempt, Vinny’s errors with regard to attire and language cause him to spend most nights in jail.
But My Cousin Vinny is more than a good comedy. We can also see it as a primer on how the legal mind works. Even though Vinny is a little weak on matters of dress and language, he knows how to put on a good legal defense.
It all starts with not taking anything at face value. Vinny instinctively recognizes that the prosecution case is only an image of what it claims to be the “facts”. This image consists of pieces of evidence that are made to appear to fit together tightly like the bricks in a well built house. The defense attorney’s job is to show that the prosecution’s image is an illusion. Its house of bricks is actually made of straw.
So Vinny puts every piece of prosecution evidence to the test of doubt. Was the view of one alleged eyewitness actually blocked by trees and bushes? Did another fail to wear the spectacles without which she was practically blind? Does the well-known fact that it takes twenty minutes to cook grits undermine the time line offered by another prosecution witness?
But Vinny’s best trick is to use the prosecution’s own evidence to show that his cousin could not have committed the crime. He does not accomplish this by means of eloquent language but by showing, thanks to Lisa’s encyclopedic knowledge of automobiles , a superior grasp of the factual details of the case.
Even though it took Vincent Gambino six tries to pass the bar exam, he shows himself to be a natural born defense lawyer. He is never cowed by authority, never accepts his adversary’s evidence at face value, and knows that victory often lies in the details. The result is a happy ending for Vinny, his client– and the audience.