19 December 2007 | tightspotkilo
Underrated. I won't belabor relating and describing the plot, because that's been recited nicely by numerous others. I'll simply return to my one word point. Underrated. Even though Marisa Tomei broke through and won Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards for her performance, an award she earned and much deserved, I still say underrated. This film really never got on the public's radar the way it should have, probably because there are no big-name actors featured as box office draw. Joe Pesci was as good as it gets that way. In 1991 he was the hottest name in the cast. But has Joes Pesci ever established himself as a leading man who could carry a movie by himself? I ask that in open-ended wonderment, and certainly not disparagingly. Just asking, is it fair, has it ever been fair, to expect Joe Pesci to carry a film?
Regardless of Joe Pesci's latent starpower, this cast of players as assembled possessed remarkable chemistry in the performances they gave, not only in their interactions with one another, but also in the creation of a final product that excels way beyond the sum of its parts, beyond any of their individual levels of genius, certainly beyond anything that could ever have been reasonably expected of them. Competent though they may have been, these were not thespian heavyweights or comedic savants. You ever wonder why this singular performance 15+ years ago and counting remains Marisa Tomei's magnum opus? That might be one big reason why. The Germans have a word for this. It's called gestalt.
My inclination is to give most of the credit for this winning final product to director Jonathan Lynn. It seems obviously to be his creation. Who else singularly deserves it? Along the way it would have been such a cheap trick and easy thing to surrender to the obvious, but Lynn didn't do it. This is a story built around stereotypes. New Yorkers. Ethnic Italian New Yorkers. Southerners. Small town southerners. Southern justice. Southern small town justice with New York Italians in the dock. It would have been so easy to traffic in those stereotypes, to over-the-top cash in on them, to submerge the movie in them and to exploit them for all they were worth. These people could have been made into cardboard cartoons of themselves. Surely the Englishman Lynn was thusly tempted, but it was a temptation he mainly resisted. Oh, almost obligatorily, he dances us over to that edge and gives us a big whiff of all that, but instead of jumping in and wallowing in the stereotypes, he deftly pulls it back and carries it all off and away in a new and different direction, indeed in an uplifting direction. Just as there are no cheap tricks in this movie, there are no cheap shots either. People are not ridiculed for who they are or where they are from. It rises above that. Lynn raises it above that. Yes, the regional differences that exist are juxtaposed. And yes, we get the fact that cultural differences divide these characters. But the beauty of it is that no one is treated unfairly. In fact, the viewer comes away with the feeling that these are all good people.
Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei are given a broad canvas to create great humorous art, bouncing one, two, three liners or more off of each other, at the other's expense. It's the game they play with each other, the nature of their characters' relationship, and it's fun to watch. And this must be said: not only does Marisa give an exquisite performance, she is an utterly delightful feminine creature to watch here. As for the southerners, in not taking the bait to exploit the southerners as dumb hicks, Lynne actually captures part of the true but rarely portrayed essence of the south: polite gentility. Lane Smith embodies that essence. And Fred Gwynne? He practically steals the show, and would have were it not for Marisa Tomei.
What has been going through Joe Pesci's and Marisa Tomei's heads for the last 15 years? What is wrong with their agents? These two needed a sequel. If not a sequel, then more film(s) together. The dynamic between them was too good to just be abandoned. We should have been treated to much more of them together.
As a trial lawyer let me say that the portrayal of courtroom events, while certainly not perfect, is more than adequate and passable. One thing that is accurately captured is the fish-out-of-water experience of a city lawyer when subjected to trying a case in a far-flung rural county. This depicton conveys the essence of what that's like.
This movie deserves more recognition. It is clever, funny, and fun. I recommend it. If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor and indulge yourself.