You may be seated.
We are here today to discuss the 1992 courtroom comedy My Cousin Vinny, a fish out of water flick full of fantastic accents and Joe Pesci trying to wrap his head around the state of Alabama. The jury may remember the film best for its scene-stealing supporting performances by Fred Gwynne and Marisa Tomei, the latter of whom turned in one of the most iconic cinematic courtroom scenes to the tune of a Best Supporting Actress win at the Oscars.
The record will show that historically the critical consensus has accused My Cousin Vinny of being straight-forward silliness. No more, no less. But look. There are lots of ways to win a court case. And there are lots of ways to overthink a movie. And I think there’s more to this “pleasant time killer” than we’ve been led to believe.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is my esteemed opinion that Vinny is not just a bullheaded Brooklynite barrister. He is a millennial icon. A tuning fork of “hard same.” A resonant “omg it me.” I am here to anoint Cousin Vinny as the patron saint of recently hired graduates, and to canonize this goofy Pesci vehicle into the same post-grad-comedy genre shelf space as Ghostworld, Adventureland, and Kicking and Screaming. My Cousin Vinny has some very relevant things to say about the absurd mind games faced by young folks entering the workforce. Sorry: by youts entering the workforce. But, more to the point: My Cousin Vinny offers some solid pointers on how to come out the other end in (more or less) one piece.
Let’s review the facts: My Cousin Vinny is a film about two snack-loving freshmen who are driving, inexplicably, through Alabama on their way from New York to UCLA. Unless Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield were flush with gas cash or really intent on taking the scenic route, there is no rhyme or reason for them to be that far south. But I digress. After stopping at a convenience store, our boys get arrested for first-degree murder. They’re innocent, of course. But a mountain of circumstantial evidence and multiple eyewitness testimonies suggests otherwise, so it looks like it’s off to the electric chair for these two! (I’m told there’s nothing funnier than sentencing two innocent minors to death).
Luckily for the boys, there’s a lawyer in the family. His name is Vinny. He’s aggressively from New York, and his fiancé, Mona Lisa Vito (Tomei), is the most interesting person in any room she’s in. Vinny takes the case. But there’s a catch: he has no fucking idea what he’s doing. He’s just passed the bar exam (after six attempts). He’s only worked personal injury settlements. And he has no trial experience — let alone murder trial experience. It’s not that Vinny’s stupid (he’s not). It’s just that this is his first juridical rodeo and the lives of two children depend on his being able to convince everyone that he’s got his professional shit together.
This is a film about a graduate flying by the seat of his pants, doing his best to figure shit out on the job AND trying to convince his boss that they didn’t make a mistake hiring them. Have you graduated recently? Is this ringing any bells?
There is a mighty big difference between successfully obtaining a fancy (and very expensive) piece of paper that says “you can do your job” and actually believing that you can do your job. The name of that difference is experience, which, like many new grads, Vinny doesn’t have. He knows it. And the lives of the two boys depend on the judge (Gwynne) never figuring it out.
Unfortunately for Vinny, this judge suffers no fools. He’s an imperious apostle of policy with a frighteningly thorough grasp and veneration of judicial proceedings. He’s old guard personified: an ivy leaguer with the lay of the land and decades of trials under his belt. And in walks Vinny, this upstart operating under the impression that he’s hot stuff. It’s all the judge can do to (proverbially) throw the (literal) book at him. This pint-sized interloper whose idea of formal wear is black on black with statement jewelry (how dare he?), who speaks out of turn, and who’s out of step with the way things are done around here. Who does he think he is? Surely not a professional. Surely not.
Vinny isn’t just an icon of professional post-grad panic, he’s a guiding light of how to act under duress (read: not entirely having your shit together just yet thank you very much). Despite the plethora of voices telling him that he doesn’t know what he’s doing (he doesn’t), Vinny never lets them make him feel stupid. Sure, he’s pulling the wool over the judge’s eyes when it comes to his credentials. And sure, he fucks up and is held in contempt of court more than once. But when it comes to believing in his ability to legitimately win the case? He knows he can earn that win. No matter how hard the judge and the prosecution try and chip away at his confidence. No matter how out of sorts he feels as a city slicker in a small town. No matter how much figurative and literal mud he gets on his face: he’s here to do a job, damn it. Second-guessing his ability to figure it out is not on the menu! We stan!
Newly employed grads who don’t feel like they know what they’re doing and at this point are too afraid to ask, here’s how Vinny wins the day: peer support and the elusive art of faking it till you make it. Let’s not get it twisted: Vinny wins the case because he can, in fact, lawyer — but also because he makes use of his support system. When he finally lets others help him (read: asks his very smart, capable fiancé to help him), he cracks the case. If you’re adrift in a strange professional landscape with a roadmap that you can barely read, it behooves you to swallow your pride and lean on those around you. That’s great advice!
Meanwhile, “fake it till you make it” is terrible advice if you’re, say, an undersea welder. Or a pediatric surgeon. But when it comes to combating imposter syndrome and proving to everyone else (and, most importantly, to yourself) that you can, in fact, do the thing, it isn’t a terrible idea. Pretending like you know what you’re doing can go a heck of a long way. If you’re a new professional person and catch yourself thinking “everyone has it all figured out but me,” trust and believe: they probably don’t. Something you’re not seeing is a source of insecurity for them. We all have blind spots. Everyone is making it up. So why not make up something that keeps the self-effacing voices at bay? Put on your big boy court suit. It might not fit. It might not be exactly the right suit. But if it helps you play and feel the part, even a little, it’s worth it.
Before we adjourn, I’d like to say a little something about Joe Pesci’s tremendous ability to goof it up. Because really, in case it wasn’t clear, My Cousin Vinny is a very good time (which is saying a lot for a film about capital punishment and having your nascent professional worth questioned at every turn). Pesci made a name for himself as a chaotic cross between a motor-mouthed mobster and a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. But his performance in My Cousin Vinny is something a little more recognizably human. It’s hot-headed nuttiness pitch-shifted into something that is almost melancholic. His beleaguerment never quite modulates into a fury; his frustration never quite tips over into a blow-up. Pesci is as enjoyable to watch as ever, but his energy simmers rather than boils over. When he wins the case, Vinny doesn’t stick around to blow raspberries. He splits. And it’s kind of bittersweet. He laughs in the face of imposter syndrome but at the end of the day, Vinny wants to do his job well. And that’s why he triumphs: he doesn’t take himself too seriously. And if you’re in on the joke, chances are you’ll make it through.