Somehow in my 23 years, I managed to avoid watching all 120 minutes of My Cousin Vinny. I’m familiar with the film mostly because I have an actual cousin named Vinnie (stay with me: that’s spelled “Vinn-i-e”). My mother is also a lawyer. And we’re extremely Italian—so much so that every time I mention my cousin, people do that point-and-laugh thing as if to say, “Your family could not be more Italian.” And I agree.
My family’s level of Italiano verges on parody (we have every line from Goodfellas and The Godfather memorized, we make pasta sauce in bulk, and my dad and my uncle demand to chaperone my dates). That said, I’ve grown weary of the way Italian-Americans are portrayed on screen. As my cousin says, “A lot of us are loud, sarcastic, sassy, ball-busters, but we really care deep down inside.” We have a lot of pride in our heritage, our history, our idioms and expressions, but I also grew up understanding how to laugh at how ridiculous we can be (within reason).
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In the spirit of celebrating My Cousin Vinny’s 25-year anniversary, and in an effort to understand why my family loves this movie, I decided to recruit my real-life cousin Vinnie (via FaceTime call) to watch it with me.
Here are 8 reasons we both fell in love with the film all these years later.
1. The Banter
“Let me axe you somethin’” is a dead ringer for the way my dad talks when he’s explaining something that he thinks I should already know. You have to be on your toes when you’re talking to someone in the family, especially when we’re ticked off or trying to make a point. Italians tend to speak at a rapid-fire pace, and you can bet we’ll slip in a few bitingly sarcastic comments. You know you've found your match when you can banter back–like Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci) and Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei). The duo absolutely nail it right from the start.
2. The Costumes
“Yeah, you blend.” In the first of many hilarious satirical comments, Tomei points out that Vinny sticks out like a sore thumb in the small southern town. He’s a leather-wearing, smart-talking Italian New Yorker and Beechum County Alabama isn’t ready for his style. The judge even orders him to wear a proper suit during trial—something Vinny takes a while to understand. And then there are Tomei’s outfits, which are incredible. The royal blue court dress? That bodysuit?? They’re about as beautiful and ballsy as she is.
3. Marisa Tomei’s Delivery
I think my cousin is in love with Marisa Tomei, and I think I might be, too. In her Oscar-winning supporting actress role, she’s a strong-willed, clever Italian-American woman just like the one who raised me. She loves and supports her fiancé, but not at the expense of her own integrity and intellect. My cousin’s favorite scene, which is arguably the most well-known of the whole movie, is her testimony. Tomei’s car knowledge is put to the test by a skeptical male prosecutor, but she holds her own impressing everyone in the courtroom. “She’s just perfect,” my cousin swooned. “I just loved how she put [the prosecutor] right in his place.”
4. Focus on Family
There’s a touching scene where Pesci does a card trick to try to convince his little cousin that he’s the right man for the job, first and foremost because he’s family. This may be a comedy, but it’s absolutely true. My cousin put it best when he said, “Italians are very family oriented people who love to joke around and bust each other's balls, but we’d do anything for the people we love.” Tomei does everything she can to help Vinny, even after fighting with him. And she does so without caving to his will but by showing of her own intelligence and expertise. You do anything for your family, even if that family member failed his bar six times and now wants to represent you in a murder trial.
5. The Street Smarts
Vinny may not realize that the prosecution has to turn over any and all evidence to the defense, but he’s basically able to solve this case by knowing a thing or two about tires (or rather Tomei knowing a thing or two about cars). There’s a real emphasis on street-smarts it in my household. As Vinny says in the movie, “Nobody pulls the wool over the eyes of a Gambini.”
6. The “Yoots” Scene
I can’t tell you how many times my dad slips into his New York-Italian speak to come up with words like “yoots” for “youths” or “tree” for “three.” I do it myself when I’m angry or frustrated. But speaking with the authority of a lawyer’s daughter and the wit of an Italian woman usually means people can understand maybe every third word that comes flyin’ outta my mouth. The movie's accents are obviously exaggerated and a little more Brooklyn than plain Italian, but things like this miscommunication really do happen. It's even said that the idea for the scene came from a real incounter between Pesci and director Jonathan Lynn.
7. The Grits Defense
Of course part of this defense rests on grits or some type of food. Food is the universal language as far as my family and many other Italian families are concerned. Cooking is a major event. We are passionate about things like making the family sauce just right and finding the perfect vine-ripe tomatoes with fresh mozzarella for Caprese salad. I grew up in the kitchen, all of my cousins did. And to quote my mother: “Everybody’s gotta eat.”
8. Legal Accuracy
My mom loves to watch Law & Order, Cold Case, or Criminal Minds but she notes, every chance she gets, just how legally inaccurate everything seems to be. She and my dad, a police officer, slip into exchanging courtroom jargon that slides right over my head to make fun of these shows. But My Cousin Vinny is strikingly accurate. It’s also named the third top top 25 legal movies by the American Bar Association. That’s part of why my mom loves it, and why I now love it, too.
Stream My Cousin Vinny on Amazon here.