My Cousin Vinny And Courtroom Procedure Movie Review Examples
The impressions of legal procedure that appear on the silver screen and television often provide riveting drama, but they often have very little to do with actual legal procedure. The give-and-take between Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall, playing son and father in The Judge, evocatively portrays the issues in their relationship, but their conversation almost certainly would not have taken place in open court. Also, one does not imagine that the outburst Duvall’s character makes after the end of the cross-examination has come to an end would have ever taken place in a real court. The philosophizing that stalwart assistant district attorney Jack McCoy employs during questioning phases in open court during episode after episode of the epic television series Law & Order would not be allowed to stand, either. There are few movies, though, that take courtroom to such farcical lengths as the film My Cousin Vinny. From the nineteenth-century suit that Joe Pesci wears to court on a day when his suit gets dirty to the fact that the actor who played Herman Munster ends up presiding over this courtroom, the movie sets out as a caricature of the legal process. However, many of the elements of the actual trial in the film, such as the “reality of limited budgets, limited preparation, impatient judges, hostile expertshopelessly mangled questions, completely fruitless arguments and of real life constantly intruding” actually reflect what life is like when practicing trial law (Kennerly 2012, web).
Many movies about the law lack real verisimilitude about what could happen during a trial. Consider the most important scene in the film A Few Good Men. It is beyond the scope of reality that Tom Cruise’s character would have been allowed to engage in the high-octane shouting match that led to Jack Nicholson’s character making the shocking admission that he committed a crime that will lead to imprisonment and the end of a decorated career. He is simply too politically savvy to make that kind of mistake – if not, he would not have risen to the command post that he has. Also, the court-martial judge would not have permitted matters to go that far. However, in My Cousin Vinny, all of the things that take place could have happened (and often happen) during trial. When the sheriff is reading back the transcript from the police narrative and Bill’s “I shot the clerk?” – which was said in surprise and question – and uses a monotone delivery that indicates a confession rather than a question, trial lawyers tend to wince with recognition (Kennerly 2012, web).
As Vinny rolls through the cross examination about the magical grits, trial lawyers watching the film must remember their own experiences getting a key witness ready so that the other side will establish indisputable facts, only to admit later on that their confidence has slipped about their prior testimony. The fact that the idea only occurred to Vinny while he was eating breakfast that morning reflects the reality that the best ideas often occur to trial lawyers on the fly (Kennerly 2012, web). As Alberto Bernabe points out, “Vinny is terrible at the things we do teach in law school but very good at the things we don’tlaw students could learn from him as to how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice” (Bernabe 2012, web). The ways in which Vinny uses his personality to get what he wants out of a witness, knowing “when to ask a question and when to remain quiet” (Bernabe 2012, web) are traits that many law school graduates leave school not knowing how to do.
And so what can one learn from My Cousin Vinny about trial law? One does not become a tremendous trial law by learning rules. Instead, the skills involved with interviewing clients, gathering facts, building case theory, negotiating and knowing when to ask what questions is an art form that comes with time. The lawyers that become great over time are not the ones who develop transcendent ideas. Instead, they develop the ideas that win others over (Kennerly 2012, web). This is, of course, what happens with Vinny. It is crucial to know the rules and the law surrounding the case; it was ridiculous, for example, that it took so long for Vinny to ask for the prosecutor’s file, but that is just one element of the larger process.
Another element of My Cousin Vinny that renders it closer to the realities of trial law is that there is no evil villain to take on. Even in The Judge, the man whom Robert Duvall’s character kills by ramming him off his bicycle into a ravine does not seem to deserve much in the way of pity. Duvall’s character had only sentenced the scumball to 30 days when 180 would have been more appropriate, out of a rare leniency. Of course, the convict repays this leniency by drowning the girl whom he had been sent away for threatening as soon as he got out of juvenile detention, leaving the judge with a lifetime of regrets. It is this character that the audience hates, perhaps to the point of wondering why the jury bothered to convict the judge on the basis of such evidentiary Swiss cheese. In A Few Good Men, it is the misplaced testosterone that Jack Nicholson’s character allows to boil within himself, to the point of covering up a murder, that makes him the bad guy. In My Cousin Vinny, there is no one to hate. The judge is annoying, but he’s really just straight-laced about rules, and he ends up being fair. The police and prosecutors are suspicious of these Northern outsiders, but ultimately their motivation is in the right place. The antagonist, then, is not a person but the lack of certainty of justice within the American court system, ostensibly designed to protect the innocent. If Bill had not had a cousin who had the ability to practice law so well, if the prosecutor had not given all of the contents of a file, if the judge had not permitted Mona Lisa to testify as an expert witness, if the real killers had not left those helpful skid marks behind, those boys might well have ended up in prison in the Deep South, with no one to help them. In a legal system that claims to protect the innocent, supposition can fill evidentiary gaps so smoothly and easily that it does not take much to push innocent people into the convict population. This makes one wonder, of course, whether it is My Cousin Vinny or the actual legal system that represents the larger farce.
A Few Good Men (1992). Dir. Rob Reiner. Perf. Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore.
Columbia Pictures Corporation.
Bernabe, A. (2012). My Cousin Vinny: A story about legal education.
Kennerley, M. (2012). Every young trial lawyer needs to watch My Cousin Vinny.
My Cousin Vinny 1992). Dir. Jonathan Lynn. Perf. Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Fred Gwynne. Palo
The Judge (2014). Dir. David Dobkin. Perf. Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio.
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