30 years after its initial release, "My Cousin Vinny" continues to be one of the great American comedies. You'd probably be surprised to know that I quote this movie more than any other, with "Are you sure about that five minutes?" being one of my go-tos. Marisa Tomei's hunting monologue was reason enough to give her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. When you go down the line of movies that use courtroom procedure, I think it's pretty wild that "My Cousin Vinny" stands out as one of the most accurate to date.
The film is presented as something to be underestimated based on its appearance, much like Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci) himself. The premise of an unregistered NY lawyer being left in charge of a first degree murder case in the deep South is rife with comedic possibility, and it is! But the greatest trick of Jonathan Lynn's film is taking Gambini seriously no matter how many times he irks the stern Judge Haller (Fred Gwynne). Pesci is already a captivating presence, but the gradual escalation into the NY lawyer he was born to be, ensures that you hang on to his every word.
But even when it's not in the courtroom defending Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Witfield, "My Cousin Vinny" finds ways to incorporate the state of Alabama into its comedy, and nowhere is that more apparent than a running gag involving Vinny's inability to get a good night's sleep. With that, there's a hilarious moment involving an angry Gambini, a loaded pistol, and an owl that won't stop screeching.
Thankfully It Didn't Take Owl Night
Having been pushed to his breaking point, Vinny, now staying in a cabin similar to the creepy abode from "The Evil Dead," loads a pistol and fires aimlessly into the black of night. The owl continues to screech, which prompts him and his fiancée Lisa to sleep in their car somewhere else instead. According to Lynn, that shot of Vinny and the owl was incredibly difficult to set up.
Working with animals on a film set comes with its own set of challenges, especially if you need them to have perfect timing. Lynn had prepared the owl for the sounds of gunshots (via The Director's Cut) in addition to tying some string around its ankle. But how did they make it screech on command? Turns out all you need is some meat and a little patience, as Lynn explains:
"I noticed that the wrangler gave him little bits of meat, and every time that happened, the owl opened his mouth, took the meat, closed his beak, and as he swallowed the meat, his beak opened. So I thought, 'Well, we'll put a screech on there [in post-production].' So I set up the shot, and the camera was going to track along the branch and come to the owl, and just before the camera picked up the owl, he was going to get a little piece of meat. Right before the camera got there, he opened his beak and screeched ... so then Joe [Pesci] came bursting out behind the owl, and we [rack] focused ... we saw Joe come out with the gun, and by amazing good fortune, the owl turned to look. So I held my breath, and he looked at Joe until Joe went back into the house, and then the owl turned back to us and screeched."
"We just had one take, of course," Lynn explained, recalling the suspenseful process of waiting on pins and needles to see if the shot would be usable. "I spent the next 24 hours praying that the lab didn't scratch the film. Because I knew we would never get that shot again."
The Perfect Running Gag
One detail I've always found so funny about that scene is how Vinny makes sure to put on his black leather jacket before going outside, but no pants. On top of providing a good laugh, the owl bit is just a fraction of what I'd consider one of the greatest running gags in any movie. "My Cousin Vinny" does a spectacular job at escalating the gag to pure absurdity. You're right alongside poor Vinny as he continues to have the worst luck in the world, having just nestled into bed before this town offers one rude wakeup call after the other.
The sawmill whistle going off at 5:30am is already a bad enough start, but it couldn't get any worse, right? Amid trying to build a case, he's woken up to a fresh new day by a slaughterhouse next door, a train passing through town, a torrential downpour and, of course, the owl. This throughline culminates in the perfect punchline where, rather than being bailed out of jail for contempt of court (again), Vinny decides to stay the night.
Once nighttime rolls around, you hear sirens, arguments, and a whole manner of noise emanating from the jail, which would naturally wake him up. And in a brilliant reveal, Vinny is shown sleeping like a baby. In addition to being a great capper for this gag, it also gives the audience a peek at the environment he feels comfortable in. The problem is not as much about the noise, but more that he truly misses the blaring hustle and bustle of New York City.
"My Cousin Vinny" is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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