It's easy to think of Joe Pesci performances as the same performance, keyed to one recurring bit of trademark shtick. In every role, whether he's playing a mobster, a crook, a bigoted tough, or just some archetypal Italian-neighborhood buddy, sooner or later you get a big, fat, screen-filling close-up of the look: that Jeez-you-bug-me, whatsamattayou wince, an openmouthed stare that says conspiratorially to the audience, Can you believe this? He's so good at using this annoyed take to make you laugh (and sometimes cower at the threat of explosive violence) that the rest of his acting vocabulary tends to fade away.
But home video means never having to rely on memory, and now that Pesci's first leading-man hit, My Cousin Vinny, is poised to become a sorry-we're-out-of-copies smash at video stores, it's a good time to return to his earlier movies and see just how smartly varied his screen persona really is. Watched in a concentrated burst, Pesci's career high points are suddenly a fresh collection of riffs: Have you noticed he always has a different walk, vocal pitch, and, of course, perfectly expressive toupee or buzz cut?
There's no better illustration of Pesci's same-but-different range than his Oscar-winning performances in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull and GoodFellas. In both movies, a pivotal argument scene has him suddenly smash a bottle into an unsuspecting acquaintance's face. As Joey, guardian younger brother to Bull boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), Pesci doesn't act so much as behave. His grimace as he explodes at a guy who dares chat up his sister-in-law (Cathy Moriarty) is utterly untamed. Yet a decade later, playing out much the same scene as nutball mafioso Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas, Pesci's rage at a club owner who dares ask him to pay his bill doesn't spring visibly from anger; it's cool and completely thoughtless.
Hearing the two soundtracks in tandem also reveals what a whiny delivery Pesci uses in GoodFellas, making Tommy's helium-high timbre so integral to his strung-out personality that you really don't notice it's not Pesci's natural voice. And what a pleasure it is to savor Tommy's deference to his doting mother with the image still fresh of Joey treating his wife like a doormat; both characters view women their own age as good for making boom-badda-boom and little else, but Pesci makes one a convincing charmer and the other a sympathetic boor.
Nothing else Pesci has done has the full-bodied impact of these portraits, but he's plenty engaging in lighter vehicles like Lethal Weapon 2, as in a scene where his keyed-up stoolie Leo Getz explains why you should never order food at a drive-through (''They f--- you at the drive-through, okay?''). He's just as hilarious in Easy Money, lending quieter, deadpan support as a plumber with a sewer mouth to slobbo Rodney Dangerfield. And even in the PG world of Home Alone, hemorrhaging with exasperation at fellow thief Daniel Stern, Pesci proves just as eloquent with epithets: He simply replaces the usual F-word with such cartoon variations as ''fricka fracka futcha-ratcha fratcha!''
As long as you don't expect that level of inventiveness from My Cousin Vinny, you should have a pleasant enough time. It's a culture-clash sitcom, tailored to showcase Pesci as a novice Brooklyn attorney hired to defend his young cousin (Ralph Macchio) and a pal from a bum Southern-town murder rap. In fact, it's so steeped in the insult-fest tone endemic to TV comedy-especially with Fred Gwynne (Herman on The Munsters) as the judge who seethes over Pesci's ignorance of the law-that it seems more at home on the tube than it did blown up on theater screens.
As good as Gwynne is, the best battle-of-wills byplay comes between Pesci and Marisa Tomei, who's a stitch as Vinny's tough-as-nails girlfriend Mona Lisa Vito. She's Pesci's best sparring partner this side of De Niro, batting back his sarcasm with perfectly timed retorts.
Unfortunately, Vinny dilutes this great team-up in too plodding a plot line; at nearly two hours, the pesce-out-of-water gags drag. And engaging as he is, he still shines brightest as a supporting character. Still, there's enough primo Pesci in My Cousin Vinny for the movie to merit a verdict of B.
Raging Bull: A+
Lethal Weapon 2: B
Easy Money: B
Home Alone: B+