FILM / Laughed out of court: My Cousin Vinny; Dakota Road

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The Independent Culture
Courtroom dramas are a thriving American genre, as recent hits like Jagged Edge, The Accused and Presumed Innocent continue to testify. Successful courtroom comedies are thinner on the ground, these days anyway: once we had Adam's Rib and Roxie Hart, but the Eighties only threw up a dud, Legal Eagles. My Cousin Vinny (15) suggests why that might be. In it, two young New Yorkers (Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield) on vacation in Hicksville, Alabama (note the road signs announcing free horse manure and dirt for sale) are accused of murder. They need a good lawyer. They get Macchio's cousin, Joe Pesci.

Vinny looks like a dodgy prospect, having failed his bar exams six times and being ignorant of the most elementary court procedure. This, like many nuts and bolts of the plot machinery, strains credibility: surely any TV-watching American will know a trial begins with a guilty / not guilty plea. More damningly, Vinny hails from Brooklyn, with accent and wardrobe to suit - the object of infinite condescension for Fred Gwynne's bloodhound-faced, Southern-patrician judge. This is his first murder trial; actually, his first trial altogether.

None the less, as convention demands, he wins the day against overwhelming odds. These include, Exhibit One: as a supposedly rookie lawyer, Pesci's a good 10 years too old for the role (he seems to have had an emergency face lift, and you will be surprised to see that, on this evidence, American lawyers, like their UK cousins, wear very obvious wigs). Exhibit Two: a punishing trial (two hours - too long for this material). Three: erratic direction (Jonathan Lynn, ex-Yes Minister and Nuns on the Run). And Four: a patchy script. But a few scenes swing the verdict.

One especially corny scene depends on that hoary joke, the sexual double- entendre. The lawyer visits the boys in jail for a briefing; one of them believes he's a fellow-con come to rape him, and Pesci's protestations ('It's your ass, not mine . . . I didn't come down here just to get jerked off') do absolutely nothing to reassure him. But the sequence is, somehow, funny, partly because the outrageous scatalogical puns are natural, not laboured, partly because of Pesci's nervy, energetic delivery.

A respected supporting actor (he won an Oscar for his terrifying performance in GoodFellas and does some cute comic turns in the Lethal Weapons and Home Alones), Pesci shows he can sit above the title, carry a movie, and even sustain its romantic interest - special mention here to his girlfriend, the wonderfully loud, funny, sexy Marisa Tomei: a mouth on legs. Vinny is purportedly inspired by Pesci's role in Raging Bull (as Robert De Niro's brother) and, as a character, is as interestingly ambivalent.

His success depends on aggressive verbal virtuosity as much as on rational argument: it's our old favourite, the volatile Italian. You can see him working himself up into a lather, just beginning to go psycho on us, then tipping it into comedy with a wink or a nod. When he demolishes the prosecution witnesses, you expect him to finish them with a rain of bullets and then stuff them into his car boot (Lynn's direction underlines the film's uncertain tone - the early sections are larded with ominous low-angle shots and Dutch tilts, like a B-film noir).

In fact Italian-Americans on their guard against spaghetti stereotypes won't find a whole lot to celebrate here. From Little Caesar and Scarface on, they have mainly appeared on screen as gangsters (an image revived in the Seventies by the Godfather films, and freshened up more recently by Prizzi's Honor, GoodFellas, Godfather 3 and My Blue Heaven). Vinny partly embodies another stock Italian-American type - the blue- collar boy made good (see Rocky, Saturday Night Fever and next year's live-action film of the Super Mario Brothers game, which fetes a heroic Brooklyn plumber). He sits on the right side of the law . . just: he has the spivvy dress sense - black leather jacket, gold medallions, colour-blind ties - of a small-time hood. He is only an attorney because he managed to parley his way out of a 'bullshit parking ticket' - impressed, a friendly judge took him under his wing. And his whole nascient career is a question of cosa nostra - he is defending his cousin, with his fiancee as star witness.

The comedy turns on the lifestyle-war between Vinny's super-ethnicity and a small town so additive-free it has no Chinese restaurant. If there is a serious subtext to this flyweight movie, it is that justice is Ivy-League WASP (like the judge, and emphatically unlike Vinny); right squeaks through by the skin of its teeth. One small sequence makes the point: 'Truth' drones the judge, 'the word comes down from little old England and all our ancestors' and the camera lingers momentarily on the quizzical face of an African-American juror. And maybe that's why courtroom comedies are delicate flowers, when the haphazard workings of the Law, from Simi Valley, Calif, to Hicksville, Alabama, remind us incessantly that the pursuit of justice isn't really a laughing matter.

By a curious coincidence, two of the few British films opening this summer, Waterland and Dakota Road (no cert), are set in the Norfolk fens, which becomes a symbolic sump for the murkiest emotions. Duly present in both films: incest, simple-mindedness, teenage pregnancy, bodies swallowed up by the marshes. Dakota Road contrasts the lower depths of British life with a US airbase, whose youths soar, Top Gun-like, through the ether (and Waterland likewise opposes its blithe, carefree Americans and screwed-up Brits).

Dakota Road glowingly photographs East Anglia's windy beauty, but the story is like those miserabilist kitchen sink dramas of the early Sixties, updated and sent to the country. There are endless family squabbles around the table; a tight-lipped landowner (Alan Howard) who keeps announcing that things are getting hard; various twisted individuals (sex always happens with someone looking on); and the obligatory doom-laden train (it's only a puny local train with two carriages, but no matter, it thunders past like the Orient Express).

The dialogue tries for that Pinter mix of portentousness and banality. Sample exchange: 'Raif?' 'What were it like?' 'What?' 'What were it like? With Jen Cross, by the river?' (pause) 'It were nice.' 'I bet it were.' 'It were real nice.' (Pause). 'Were it?' The writer, Nick Ward, is experienced in other media (theatre, radio and TV) but this tone and snail's pacing isn't right for film. It's a melodrama with the angst button set to full volume, all the way through.

(Photograph omitted)