An inevitable frustration of critics writing for weeklies is the unavoidable limitation on space. We simply can't provide reviews for every film that opens, and occasions arise when we miss a film we wish we hadn't. I was in Europe when Joel Zwick's My Big Fat Greek Wedding opened late last spring, and by the time I returned three weeks later, the picture already felt a little long in the tooth. Most of the small independent films that open in New Orleans are lucky to survive two weeks. In relative terms, if such a film lasts a month, it's a hit. But here spring has given way to summer, summer now ebbs toward fall, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding exhibits legs as long as Uma Thurman's.
The flick is a bonafide phenomenon, an independent marathoner that recalls the unlikely success of The Gods Must Be Crazy or Life Is Beautiful. Financed for a song and starring an unknown, this little feature that could has grossed more than $80 million and counting. And better late than never, Gambit Weekly isn't going to let it accomplish all that unsaluted.
Adapted for the screen from a stand-up act by Greek-American comedienne Nia Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the story of Toula Portokalos (Vardalos), the frumpy 30-year-old daughter of traditional Greek-American parents, both of whom work in the family's Greek restaurant. Toula works there, too, as a waitress, and her brother Nick (Louis Mandylor) is a cook. Toula's older sister, Athena (Stavroula Logothettis), is exempt from restaurant work only because she's done something more important, namely marry a Greek boy and produce Greek babies. And therein lies the agony of Toula's life: no boyfriend, Greek or otherwise. Toula is a plain woman with perhaps too much meat on her bones for an American society obsessed with anorexic supermodels. But if she weren't so depressed, a nicer wardrobe, a better hairstyle and a little makeup could work wonders.
And having been to movies before, we aren't much surprised when that's just what happens. First, Toula conspires with her forceful mom Maria (Lainie Kazan), whose motto is "The man may be the head of the family, but the wife is the neck, and she can turn the head in whatever direction she wants." Together the Portokalos women convince father Gus (Michael Constantine) to allow Toula to attend college for a degree in computer science. In college Toula transforms herself from ugly duckling to Greek swan. And pretty soon she's got herself the desired boyfriend, a hunk of a high school teacher named Ian Miller (John Corbett) who loves her with more devotion than Romeo showed Juliet. Unfortunately, Ian is Irish rather than Greek. So before we can have my big fat Greek wedding, we have my big fat secret courtship, my big fat fight with my unhappy family and my big fat Greek suitors my family prefers to my boyfriend.
Vardalos' script is thoroughly endearing, its persistently effective self-deprecating humor both warm and winning. This is not to deem the project all that sophisticated. Some of the jokes are broad and corny, like the notion that the Portokalos family has decorated the exterior of their house to resemble the Parthenon or that Gus' black-scarfed crone of a mother is obsessed to the point of paranoia that she's being attacked by Turks or that Ian's family would visit with the Portokalos clan and get hammered on ouzo. The romance is developed with the speed of the space shuttle. Ian seems to be in love with Toula almost before he meets her and certainly before he knows here. Moreover, though Ian is perfectly adorable, his character has no edge, emerging far more a fantasy Prince Charming, than a real human being. The acting is also uneven; Constantine's Gus is more caricature than character, and Andrea Martin is screamingly bad as Toula's Aunt Voula, seemingly mired in some SCTV sketch rather than playing a character in a movie that tugs at the heart as well as aims at the funny bone.
Other performances are better, though. A less-capable actor couldn't have saved Ian, but Corbett manages to make us really fond of a character provided with too little dimension in the writing. Kazan is always good, a brassy trooper, here completely convincing; she's everybody's loud-mouthed, good-hearted, sneaky smart aunt or neighbor. And Vardalos hits every mark as Toula; she's sweet and sensitive and nicely complicated in wanting to live the life of a modern woman without causing heartache for her traditional parents. And though not every joke in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a winner, plenty enough are to make this picture satisfying. At the end, those of you prone to moist eyes at the nuptial ceremony had better keep a tissue handy, a bit of earned sentiment that sends us home sniffling and smiling all at once.
- Ian (John Corbett) immediately falls for Toula (Nia Vardalos) in the wildly successful romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding.