`Vinny' Veers Into Comedy Heaven -- At Last, Joe Pesci Gets A Role Equal To His Gifts

XXX "My Cousin Vinny," with Joe Pesci, Ralph Macchio, Marisa Tomei, Mitchell Whitfield, Fred Gwynne. Directed by Jonathan Lynn, from a script by Dale Launer. Alderwood, Crossroads, Everett Mall, Factoria, Kent, Oak Tree, Renton Village, Seatac Mall, Uptown. "R" - Restricted due to strong language. --------------------------------------------------------------- What's a New York kid's ultimate Deep South nightmare?

In "My Cousin Vinny," it's when you accidentally steal a can of tuna from a Sac-o-Suds grocery store and then find yourself standing in a police lineup for your crime.

That's what happens to college students Willie Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stanley Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) when they decide to end their summer vacation with a cross-country drive back to school via Alabama.

The nightmare gets worse when they learn they've been arrested for murder, not shoplifting. And it becomes complete when they get their first glimpse of their defense lawyer, Willie's cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci), in action.

As Vinny puts it, this is his "first foray into the trial process" and he's learning on the job.

Luckily, Vinny's girlfriend, Lisa (Marisa Tomei), is helping him. Not only is she smart, but she has a vested interest in the case: Vinny promised to marry her after he wins his first victory in the courtroom.

At first glance, "My Cousin Vinny" appears to be an overly tidy battle between two small armies of cliches: sleazeball New York types vs. gruff Southern homeboys. But it soon starts throwing curve balls, the most notable being an unpromising "girlfriend" role that suddenly veers off into comedic heaven.

As Lisa, Tomei could be Judy Holliday reincarnated and squeezed into a black leather miniskirt. Effortlessly assimilating a massive tome on Alabama courtroom procedure while doing her nails, she's a shrewd and zany knockout who's not at all averse to knocking some sense into Vinny when he needs it - which is frequently.

She can also be relied on for her automobile expertise.

Pesci is a treat, too, with his squawky delivery and cartoonish energy. Fred Gwynne, as a solemn etiquette-obsessed Alabama judge who doesn't quite know what has hit him, is a perfect foil to Pesci - dignified, Draconian and drawling in a voice that's as deep and gravelly as the Mississippi.

Macchio and Whitfield are appealing in their straight-men roles. Mostly they just get to look anxious.

Director Jonathyn Lynn hams it up for all he's worth, encouraging his actors to go over the top and filming them at crazed camera angles (courtesy of cinematographer Peter Deming). Randy Edelman's music score is serviceable, but not memorable. Some of the gags are slapdash and obvious, especially a roll-in-the-mud slapstick episode and a painful courtroom stuttering session.

Luckily, Lynn has Dale Launer's script to hold things together. Offering more verbal play than pratfall, Launer juxtaposes Southern and Brooklyn dialects to create a fertile minefield of misunderstandings for Pesci, Gwynne and company to explore.

The pacing is brisk and the energy of the performances is so palpable that even at its silliest and most contrived, the film is enjoyable. It's a relief to see Pesci in his first decent follow-up to Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (apart from his supporting role in "JFK").

As for Tomei, her brassy brand of comedy is a delight, especially when she starts talking automobile engines. "My Cousin Vinny" is her vehicle - and she knows how to drive it.