MOVIE REVIEW : Uneven 'Cousin Vinny' a Mixed Bag of Comedy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Pesci is a truly oddball actor. When he first appeared on the scene in "Raging Bull" as Jake La Motta's brother, playing opposite Robert De Niro, he immediately gave evidence of his impulsive, hot-headed style. In "Lethal Weapon 2," playing a crum-bum crook, Pesci's motor-mouthed flibbertigibbet act was like a cartoon in motion: a cross between the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. In "GoodFellas," his nattery, knockabout quality was carried to its psychopathic extreme; in "Home Alone," he was once again cartoonized. In "JFK" he was like a yowling wind-up toy embroiled in the high dudgeon of Oliver Stone's conspiracy theories.

Given the temptations to goof it up, Pesci's performance in "My Cousin Vinny" (citywide) is something of a triumph. As Vincent Gambini, a swaggering pint-sized New York lawyer who only recently passed the bar on his sixth try, Pesci modulates his usual psycho-nuttiness and gives it some recognizably human, even melancholy, undertones.

The movie is a very mixed bag, but it's not quite the dumb fest that the TV spots make it out to be. Pesci gives Vinny's ultimate vindication a note of bittersweet triumph. He's the underdog as top dog, but he's savvy enough to realize he's never going to be completely out of the woods. He simply doesn't cut the right figure, and he knows it.

The film takes off when Vinny shows up in Georgia to defend his cousin Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Bill's friend from NYU (Mitchell Whitfield) in a mistaken-identity case. The boys, bopping through the Deep South on vacation, are implicated in the murder of a convenience store owner; not knowing any lawyers, and facing the electric chair, they settle on Vinny.

It soon becomes clear he's never been in a courtroom before, and his lawyerly attire--leather jacket, no tie--gets him repeatedly cited for contempt by the imperially cranky judge (Fred Gwynne). Between his ignorance of procedure and the owls and pigs and trains and factory whistles that rouse him awake each morning before dawn, Vinny spends most of his time in a state of blithery incomprehension.

The city-slicker-versus-Southern-cracker shenanigans are fairly predictable, and politically incorrect too. Which means they are often funny. Director Jonathan Lynn is best known for the British comedy series "Yes, Minister," and he sustains an outsider's blinkered, askew view. The jokiness may not always be inspired (the script is by "Ruthless People's" Dale Launer) but it's never cruel.

Lynn's attempts to jumble comedy and drama don't always jell; the goofy stuff is never quite antic enough, and the serious stretches don't have enough weight. Instead of playing off each other, the mixture of moods just seems odd. It could be that commercial calculation figured into the jumble. Rare is the studio with the courage these days to present a comedy without an overlay of soppiness; it's a way of covering their bets by appealing to the widest possible audience. (As is often the case, no single audience ends up satisfied.) "My Cousin Vinny" (rated R for language) doesn't have the nut-brained distinctiveness that is essential for terrific comedy.

Except in some of the performances. Besides Pesci and Gwynne, there's Austin Pendelton as a super-casual public defender with a secret to hide, and, best of all, Marisa Tomei as Vinny's girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito. Tomei is so good at playing this svelte sharpie that she commandeers the screen whenever she's around. Her arguments with Pesci are so kooky that they function as a kind of running vaudeville act, and yet they also have the almost surreal familiar ring of domestic arguments. Their back-and-forth bickering is a form of love play.

'My Cousin Vinny'

Joe Pesci: Vinny Gambini

Ralph Macchio: Bill Gambini

Marisa Tomei: Mona Lisa Vito

A Twentieth Century Fox presentation of a Dale Launer production. Director Jonathan Lynn. Producers Dale Launer and Paul Schiff. Screenplay by Dale Launer. Cinematographer Peter Deming. Editor Tony Lombardo. Costumes Carol Wood. Music Randy Edelman. Production design Victoria Paul. Art directors Randall Schmook and Michael Rizzo. Set decorator Michael Seirton. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (language).

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