According to lawyers, there’s one film that consistently ranks among the top law-themed films of all time. It’s not hard to see why, when you have a rare narrative that portrays the lawyer as himself being the embattled underdog, who manages to overcome adversity and become the noble problem-solver and advocate for justice he was (maybe, on a good day) destined to be. This weekend’s movie recommendation is My Cousin Vinny.

Bill Gambini and Stan Rothenstein are two New York kids taking a road trip through Alabama before they begin classes at college. When their car is pulled over, they fear the worst: they believe they’re about to be hauled back to the precinct for the careless error of having unintentionally stolen a can of tuna from the local gas station. They know that justice in Alabama takes a different tenor than what they’re familiar with, so they brace themselves for trouble when their fears are realized.

But things start going really pear-shaped when they learn that they’re being booked for murder one instead of petty larceny. Just moments after pulling out of the gas station, Bill and Stan protest, others driving a similar car must have approached and committed the crime for which our tender protagonists stand accused.

Thankfully, Bill has an ace in the hole: the Gambinis are famous arguers, and what’s more, one of them has—barely—passed the New York bar. Uncle Vinny, played by Joe Pesci, drives down to Alabama with his delightful fiance Mona Lisa Vito, played by Marisa Tomei, to defend Bill and Stan. A comedy of manners follows, in which Vinny and Mona bring their out-of-town Brooklyn flair to the unassuming Alabama town where Vinny will try the case.

Hot off the heels of some strong character-driven performances in films like Goodfellas and Home Alone, you might anticipate Pesci soaking up all the screen charisma in My Cousin Vinny. Yet, while his performance certainly does the trick—he has a knack for pulling off the look of a man for whom even the most fed up outbursts still possess an endearing charm to them—Pesci nonetheless is not the best part of the film by a fair margin. Instead, four performances stand out as a joy to behold, and although Pesci is wonderful, he’s not one of them.

First is Fred Gwynne as the imperious judge Chamberlain Haller. At 6’5” Judge Haller is an imposing man who towers over Vinny’s bulldog 5’4” frame. Haller stands proudly on ceremony, and Vinny’s leather jacket and tie is just as unfitting for Haller’s courtroom as Vinny’s slack-jawed pronunciation (in Brooklyn, it’s “yutes,” not “youths,” your honor). As if Vinny didn’t have enough stacked against him, Judge Haller bears down on Vinny’s bar credentials up until even the final moments.

Second is Austin Pendleton as the court-appointed public defender assigned to represent Stan when confidence in Vinny wanes. The part is small, but a fine opportunity for some physical comedy that pays off in one courtroom scene in particular that had me chuckling noisily.

Third is Lane Smith as the Southern gentleman prosecutor Jim Trotter III. Smith had a lovely toothy smile and physical theatricality to all of his performances, and it’s perfectly suited to the man who loves to ham up his arguments to win over jurors.

But the absolute standout performance that steals every scene is Marisa Tomei’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Mona Lisa. While her performance is caricatured, certainly, it’s still the most tender and least grounded in ridicule of the entire film. (The director Jonathan Lynn, most closely associated with Yes, Minister, has the tendency to drift at some points into a pretty ham-fisted and reductive characterization of the Northerner-Southerner divide.) She’s unquestionably the smartest person in the entire storyline, and wildly talented at pretty much anything from pool to car repair. Best of all, she isn’t the least bit flustered by Judge Haller’s pomp, by Alabama’s traditionalism, or by the stakes of Bill and Stan’s case. Instead, she approaches everything from ordering grits for breakfast to helping Vinny prepare for trial with the same equanimity and loving support. And, to no-one’s surprise at all, she saves the day more directly in the movie’s fist-pumping final scene.

There’s a lot to love about My Cousin Vinny. But for lawyers especially, there’s so much fun to be had from seeing a courtroom comedy take seriously the importance of the theatre of criminal trials: of winning over a jury by placing the weight of one’s arguments on the story rather than the law, of eviscerating a witness’s credibility with a well-deployed prop, and of observing arbitrary formalities imposed by the judge. What a delight that Vinny manages to do so with a smile on his face (at least most of the time!).

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.