The New York Times
March 22, 1992
"A Director's British Eye on the South"
By Bernard Weinraub
With his impeccable British credentials, Jonathan Lynn was an improbable
choice to direct "My Cousin Vinny."
After all, the successful, low-budget comedy about a profane, streetwise
fledgling New York lawyer with barely a shred of legal experience
who finds himself tangling hilariously with Southern justice, is
a considerable stretch for a director who has a law degree from
Cambridge University and a distinguished career as a theater director
and co-author of one of the most successful series on British television.
But Mr. Lynn shrugs off any cultural gaps in his own experience
and says, in fact, that being British - as opposed to American -
actually helped him direct the film, which stars Joe Pesci.
"Americans, somehow, seem to regard the South as a different
province," he said, seated in his studio office. "The
South seems to be what India is to the British. A source of torrid
drama. A different place in the empire somehow. There always seems
to be a sort of Southern stereotype in American films, and I did
not want to fall into that trap. There are really no bad guys in
that movie, the Southerners are perfectly nice people, but what
does manifest itself in the film are class distinctions."
The main character, Vincent Gambini, played by Mr. Pesci, and his
girlfriend, Mona Lisa, played by a newcomer, Marisa Tomei, who almost
steals the picture, are a gum-chewing, tough-talking couple from
New York. They arrive in rural Alabama to help defend two college
students, one of whom is Vincent's cousin, played by Ralph Macchio
and Mitchell Whitfield, who are mistakenly held on a murder charge.
It's as if two North Koreans took on a case in Argentina.
"Everyone I know asks me how did I like the South, as if it's
a foreign country," Mr. Lynn said. "Well, it doesn't seem
very different from the North or the West. And in a funny way, what
was interesting in the film are the class distinctions, not the
regional ones. Vinny and Lisa are smart, blue collar people from
New York. And they encounter Southern old money, Southern aristocracy."
Observer of Behavior
It was Mr. Lynn's last film, "Nuns on the Run," about
two British con men hiding from the mob in a convent, that led to
his current film.
Joe Roth, chairman of 20th Century Fox, said in an interview: "I
thought 'Nuns on the Run' was hysterically funny. We had worked
together on that film. Jonathan's a really good observer of behavior,
British or American. And I had confidence that if he spent some
time in the South he'd come up with an accurate portrayal. It's
really difficult to find good comedy directors, and Jonathan's one
"My Cousin Vinny" is now vying with "Wayne's World"
for the No. 2 spot across the country after the violent melodrama
"Basic Instinct." "Vinny" has buoyed the spirits
of the studio, which has endured such big-budget financial failures
as "For the Boys" and "Shining Through." The
movie, written and co-produced by Dale Launer, cost $11.6 million,
a comparatively small sum.
For the 47 year-old Mr. Lynn, the movie's success is especially
sweet. In Britain he is widely known as the co-author of the acclaimed
comedy series "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister,"
about the testy relationships between civil servants and politicians.
The series was not only one of the most honored on British television,
but was also watched weekly by the entire political establishment.
His books "The Complete Yes, Minister," and "Yes,
Prime Minister" sold a million copies in hard cover and were
on the top 10 best-seller lists for three years. Mr. Lynn is also
an actor and a theater director, having served as artistic director
of the Cambridge Theater from 1977 to 1981 and directing his own
company at the National Theater.
Made Some Mistakes
But an earlier foray into Hollywood was less successful. His first
film, "Clue," which he wrote and directed in 1985, was
a comic whodunit, based on the popular board game, had an ensemble
cast and was released with three different endings - and it failed.
"It was my first attempt as a film director and I made some
mistakes," he said. "The real problem was there was this
idea for releasing a whodunit with multiple endings. Everyone thought
it was the most brilliant marketing ploy in the history of cinema.
It had never been done before. Well, when we did it we discovered
why it hadn't been done before. People didn't know which ending
to go to - so they didn't see the film at all. People said why should
they go see a movie if the film makers can't even decide how to
The key experience he gained from "Clue," Mr. Lynn said,
was that a failed picture is pinned squarely on the director. "If
you have a successful film you have all kinds of people willing
take credit," he said with a laugh. "If you direct an
unsuccessful film, you're on your own. That was the single most
important lesson I learned. I'm much more cautious now."
For four years after "Clue," he did not direct a movie.
Some projects dried up, several offers failed to interest him, and
he returned to London to direct some National Theater productions
and write the "Yes, Prime Minister" book and series. In
1990, "Nuns on the Run," which he wrote and directed,
stirred considerable Hollywood interest again.
Comedy in the Courtroom
"What appealed to me about 'Vinny' was it was a courtroom
comedy," Mr. Lynn said. "A lot of my favorite movies are
courtroom drama, but I've never read a courtroom comedy or seen
one. An awful lot of the scripts you read are a bit the same as
other scripts. A lot of the scripts you read feel as if they've
been produced by committees - and probably have been. This had a
certain unique voice."
Mr. Lynn's next film, "The Distinguished Gentleman," was
written by Marty Kaplan, a former Washington journalist and speechwriter
for the former Vice President, Walter F. Mondale. Set to begin production
in May, it deals with a con man, played by Eddie Murphy, who decides
that the biggest scam going is to be elected to the House of Representatives.
The current bank scandal in the House adds considerable resonance
to the movie.
Mr. Lynn, who lives in the hills above Sunset Strip with his wife,
Rita Lynn, a psychotherapist, said he had no plans to return to
London. Their son is about to start college in the United States.
He said his life had not changed appreciably, except for more offers
to work. "I've been in this business too long for success or
failure to change my life in any way," Mr. Lynn said. "I
have not got a personal trainer now or anything like that."
"Everyone in the world seems to have an ambivalent attitude
toward Hollywood except me," Mr. Lynn said. "Actually,
I love it." And then he laughed, adding," Now, I do."
Photos from the film
|´I think most writers
tend to write about their youth. Or, as they say in MY COUSIN
VINNY, their "yute". I think that´s the best
movie ever made, don´t you?´
-- David Mamet
New York Times,
November. 18. 1994.
score in Fox sneak previews"
by Martin A. Grove
(The Hollywood Reporter/Hollywood Report, Thursday, March
on 'Vinny': Prod'n team's a vinner"
by Martin A. Grove
(The Hollywood Reporter/Hollywood Report, Friday, March 6,
"A Director's British Eye on the South"
by Bernard Weinraub
(The New York Times, March 22, 1992)
you're so fine"
by Jack Garner
(Gannett News Service, Tuesday, March 10, 1992)
"A flashy new
lawyer in an unflashy town"
by Vincent Canby
(The New York Times, The Living Arts, Friday, March 13, 1992)