5 legal lessons from My Cousin Vinny
The 90s were a decade that created some of the most iconic legal movies in Hollywood history. A Few Good Men, A Time To Kill, Philadelphia and The Firm were all massively popular, but many of those films make lawyers and legal experts roll their eyes when they introduce a little too much fiction into the court proceedings.
The 90s movie many legal experts point to for accuracy may not be what you think, but just as the movie teaches, appearances can be deceiving. Let’s look at five legal lessons we can learn from 1992’s comedy classic My Cousin Vinny.
- Building a case. The charm of Joe Pesci’s Vinny lies in the fact he’s supremely confident even when out of his depth defending his cousin against a murder charge. He reveals the source of his confidence in an excellent scene about building a case and laying out just how shaky the evidence the prosecution’s case is.
- Courtroom decorum. Fred Gwynne’s final on-screen role as Judge Chamberlain Haller is a wonderful comedic counterpart for Vinny. Most laughs are centered on Vinny’s lack of knowledge of courtroom behaviour. Haller’s strict adherence to the letter of the law when it comes to decorum draws plenty of laughs out of when to sit, when to stand, how to address the judge and what language to use. This also works to underline the kind of legal minutiae most movies gloss over or botch entirely.
Discovery. One of Vinny’s big revelations is over discovery (the prosecution's legal obligation to share their evidence with the defence) but Vinny’s interactions with the prosecution in general are very different from your average movie. Prosecution and defense meet as they would in real life and exchange information in pursuit of their cases. My Cousin Vinny is loved by lawyers because prosecution, judge and defense may be at eachother’s throats comedically, but there are no “bad guys.” They are all just playing their roles within the justice system.
- Cross-examination. Any fan of a legal movies already knows and loves cross-examining witnesses, but My Cousin Vinny is often cited because Vinny is just so good at it. Dealing with a hostile judge, surprise witnesses, and having to dismantle eyewitness testimony precisely and inoffensively are the highlights of the case in the film. Vinny explodes numerous witnesses’ testimonies while still remaining charming and polite to the jury.
- Voir dire. The specific legal illustration most experts cite My Cousin Vinny for comes, not surprisingly, at the film’s climax. The film is an excellent example of procedure for introducing an expert witness and what lawyers can do in that case. When Vinny calls his fiancée Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) to the stand as an automotive expert, the prosecution invokes voir dire – the right to question her background and qualifications. Of course Mona Lisa turns around the entire courtroom with a monologue that won Tomei an Oscar, but the scene stands as an interesting legal scenario rarely played out on film.
With nearly a full hour of trial on film, it’s maybe not so surprising My Cousin Vinny is a favourite of law professors, but it’s fascinating that it’s also such a wonderful comedy and was a big box office hit. Director Jonathan Lynn has a law degree from Cambridge and, working with screenwriter Dale Launer, he took his background and made a great film even better. My Cousin Vinny is a film that stands up from the classroom to the Supreme Court, so be sure to check it out on Hollywood Suite. Hey, you might even learn something!