Cockeyed justice is the subject of three new but vastly different movies about misunderstood murders: My Cousin Vinny, a giddy Hollywood farce; Let Him Have It, a harrowing drama from Britain; and High Heels, a black-humored Spanish melodrama.
MY COUSIN VINNY Directed by Jonathan Lynn
In My Cousin Vinny, a careless miscarriage of justice serves as the premise for a courtroom comedy that is funnier than it has any right to be. Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield play Bill and Stan, two college students driving through Alabama who are wrongfully arrested for the murder of a convenience-store clerk.
Bill calls the only lawyer he knows, his cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci), a Brooklyn greaseball in a black leather sports jacket who failed his bar exam six times and has never set foot in a courtroom. Vinny wheels into Wahzoo City, Ala., in a big-finned Cadillac with his garishly glamorous girlfriend, Lisa (Marisa Tomei). What follows is a comic clash of northern moxie and southern manners. It is a goofy farce riddled with cheap gags and shameless stereotypes. But it works: My Cousin Vinny is hilarious.
Pesci, who won an Oscar last year playing a scary little gangster in GoodFellas, shows that he can be every bit as good in comedy as in drama. As Vinny’s dressed-to-thrill fiancée, who at first seems to be just window dressing, Tomei gets to subvert her character’s bimbo image and deliver the script’s show-stopping surprise. Meanwhile, Fred Gwynne, the bassethound mug from TV’s Car 54, Where Are You? and The Munsters, classic 1960s sitcoms, is sublime as the trial’s deadpan judge. And British director Jonathan Lynn—who has won awards for the U.K. television comedy about British politics, Yes, Minister—tempers the broad American humor of My Cousin Vinny with a sharp edge of English wit.
LET HIM HAVE IT Directed by Peter Medak
Despite their industry’s economic woes, British film-makers in the past year have turned out one superb film after another, including
Close My Eyes, Hear My Song and Truly, Madly, Deeply. The latest is Let Him Have It, a heartbreaking drama based on the true story of a slow-witted epileptic who was hanged in 1952 for a murder he did not commit. Newcomer Chris Eccleston is brilliant in the role of Derek Bentley, a sweet-natured 19-year-old with a mental age of 11, who fell in with the wrong crowd.
Bentley’s friend, a 16-year-old outlaw named Christopher Craig (Paul Reynolds), shot and killed a policeman while they were robbing a warehouse. Because Craig was too young to
hang, Bentley served as the scapegoat. The scandalous two-day trial, which made no mention of Bentley’s mental handicap, turned on a disputed piece of evidence: before Craig opened fire, Bentley was said to have shouted, “Let him have it, Chris!” It was unclear whether he was telling his friend to shoot the policeman or give him the gun.
Both chilling and compassionate, Let Him
Have It reconstructs the damaged life that leads Bentley astray. And although his fate is a foregone conclusion, the suspense of his final hours is almost unbearable. Peter Medak directs with boldness and grit—but without the lurid overtones of his previous film, The Krays (1990), which dramatized the exploits of vicious gangster twins. Medak builds Let Him Have It around a sensitive portrait of Bentley’s family—his protective father (Tom Courtenay), weary mother (Eileen Atkins) and devoted sister (Clare Holman). Seen through their eyes, the story’s macabre sense of social cruelty is overwhelming.
Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Trying to combine drama and comedy in one movie often results in a bittersweet compromise. But in High Heels, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar mixes farce and passion in a way that heightens both extremes. Almodovar first seduced North American audiences in 1988 with his Oscar-nominated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, an antic come-
dy of sexual errors. Then, after the stylish stupidity of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), the tale of a woman who falls in love with a man who brutally enslaves her, Almodovar received a deserved critical spanking. But with High Heels, he has landed on his feet and redeemed his peculiar brand of screwball surrealism.
Billed as a story of the battle of the three sexes, High Heels is a comic melodrama about a love triangle involving a mother, a daughter and a transvestite. Becky (Marisa Paredes) is a faded pop idol who goes home to perform in Madrid after a 15-year absence. She is also longing for a reconciliation with her daughter, Rebecca (Victoria Abril), after she abandoned her to pursue her career. A female impersonator named Femme Lethal (Miguel Bosé), who imitates Becky as a young star, completes the triangle.
For her part, the daughter has imitated her mother to the point of marrying the singer’s ex-boyfriend, who owns the TV station where Rebecca works as a newsreader. After he is murdered, she confesses to the crime while reporting it on TV. That is just the first of many bizarre twists in a hysterical whodunit. And as in Almodovar’s previous films, the art direction is as outrageous as the plot. The sets are colored in Tropicana hues of
aqua, coral, avocado and mango. Abril is a melodramatic vision in lipstick red. But beneath the candied surface of Almodovar’s melodrama, there is in the end a disarming undertow of emotion, a beautiful sadness. High Heels struts its stuff—then sends a spike through the heart.
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