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'My Cousin Vinny': An American Legal Classic

As a legal thriller author, Im a frequent guest on podcasts and radio shows and am often asked: “What’s your favorite legal-themed movie of all time?” It is hard to choose only one, so I usually answer: “To Kill a Mockingbird, with honorable mention to Twelve Angry Men or The Verdict.”

In 2008, the American Bar Association posted its original list of the 25 greatest legal movies. Mockingbird and Angry Men placed one and two; The Verdict ranked tenth. Interested in the ABA’s number three? Well . . . since you are obviously dying to know . . . number three was My Cousin Vinny.

My Cousin Vinny? That’s right, My Cousin Vinny. While I may not agree that Vinny is a better movie than many others on the list of 25—I certainly agree that the movie might be the funniest and most quoted legal-themed movie of all time.

March 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of this hilarious courtroom comedy, starring Joe Pesci as Vinny Gambini, a trash-mouthed Brooklyn lawyer who just passed the bar exam on his 6th try. Neophyte Vinny, with zero trial experience, travels to Alabama to represent his cousin (played by Ralph Macchio, The Karate Kid) and his cousin’s friend, arrested for murder at the Sack O’ Suds convenience store.

The film features a powerhouse opening statement (“Everything that guy just said is bullshit.”) and “expert testimony” from his fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei won a best supporting Oscar for the role) about whether the accused’s ’64 Skylark could have left the tire tracks left by the getaway car.

As someone who once struggled in the courtroom, especially in my early years, it is a joy to watch Vinny triumph with no experience and multiple missteps. He more than makes up for his inexperience by doing what successful trial lawyers must do every day: He thinks on his feet and asks the right questions. Four cross-examinations demonstrate his skill (or luck?):

First, Vinny cross-examines a cook who testifies he saw the suspects flee from the scene after hearing a gunshot reveals that the two events were separated by a full twenty minutes. Next, his cross-examination of an elderly eyewitness reveals she has vision problems (he asks her to identify how many fingers he’s holding up and she can’t do it). His cross-examination of a third eyewitness demonstrates that the ID was made through a filthy window with a rusty screen and a bunch of shrubbery. And later in the trial, Vinny trashes an FBI expert who swears that the tire marks left at the crime scene match the tires on Vinny’s cousin Billy’s 1964 Skylark.

In a classic courtroom scene that should be required curriculum in law schools all over the country, Vinny calls his ‘expert’ fiancée to the stand to rebut the testimony. Mona Lisa’s expertise comes from working in her father’s garage and having several relatives who are mechanics. Vinny asks her whether the FBI expert’s opinions ‘hold water.’ Mona testifies that Posi-traction and wheel suspension features rule out the suspects’ vehicle, testimony that is eventually supported by the FBI expert when he’s recalled to the stand.

The coup de grace comes when Vinny examines the local sheriff who testifies that a records check revealed that two men resembling the accused were arrested in Georgia for driving a similar stolen vehicle and possessing a weapon of the same type and caliber used to kill the store clerk. At this point, all charges against the two boys are dismissed.

Throughout the film, Vinny spars with the judge (flawlessly played by Herman Munster himself, Fred Gwynne), mainly on the issue of his trial experience. Vinny lies about his experience, early and often, claiming he has handled “quite a few” murder trials. He assumes the identity of a seasoned lawyer who has recently passed away. The attempted subterfuge is priceless cinema, keeps him on the case, and results, in the end, with the judge apologizing to Vinny and praising his trial skills.

Here are a couple of interesting side notes: Vinny Gambini won his trial—Atticus Finch lost his. Many lawyers use Vinny lines in courtrooms all over the country—I presume very few have borrowed “everything that guy just said is bullshit,” but who knows? The film’s producers have spoken at legal conventions—even judges have, from time-to-time, spouted lines from the movie.

“Stand up, your father’s passing,” from Mockingbird, is one of my all-time favorite lines for reverence to my profession. It honors every lawyer who stands up for what is right and just, regardless of personal consequences. However, “everything that guy said . . .” is something every lawyer would love to say in court at one time or another.

A famous tagline attached to My Cousin Vinny is “There have been many courtroom dramas that have glorified the great American legal system. This is not one of them.” Yet, the theatrical release grossed over $50 million; movie fans purchased countless videos and DVDs, and Vinny continues to be streamed, downloaded, and quoted in courtrooms and law schools everywhere.

Ladies and gentlemen, here’s to My Cousin Vinny, an American legal classic.

Mark M. Bello is an attorney and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Legal Thriller Series, ripped-from-the headlines, realistic fiction that speak truth to power and champion the rights of citizens in our justice system. These novels, dedicated to the social justice movement, are not only enjoyable, they educate, spark discussion and inspire readers to action. For more information, please visit Mark also hosts the Justice Counts podcast with Lean to the Left editor & publisher Bob Gatty, presenting bi-weekly interviews focused on social justice.

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