To date, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the smash hit feature film debut of director and actress Nia Vardalos, has grossed $136 million after 24 weeks but cost only $5 million to make. It is one of the largest blockbusters of the year, and at first glance, it’s difficult to know why. It’s hardly an original formula – a Cinderella story with a humorous edge. Still, what accounts for its enormous success? The movie has its entertaining moments, but they’re sometimes bogged down by drab sentimentality that we’ve seen ad nauseum and which only divert our attention from the really entertaining parts of the film â€“ the lead character’s parents and her cousins. The rest, such as the “serious” lines and the paper-thin plot, are dismissible.
The story is about as original as the premise for a cereal commercial. Toula (Nia Vardalos) is an unhappy 30-year-old daughter of eccentric Greek immigrants in Chicago. She works in their restaurant named the Dancing Zorbas, wears stereotypically thick glasses, apparently hasn’t washed her hair since she was 14 and has as many wrinkles as her mother. In a fateful encounter at the restaurant, she meets Ian (John Corbett) having lunch with a friend, after which she decides to take a shower and turn her life around. They date for what seems to be about two days, he wants to marry her but, of course, her parents (Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan) aren’t too keen on the idea of her marrying a “Xeno,” or non-Greek.
But you know the schtick – everyone does. It’s a classic Romeo and Juliet thing. And so Ian bends over backwards to please his in-laws, while Toula’s in-laws spend the rest of the movie looking shocked at the family they’re gaining. The collection of characters is quite entertaining – at times they show multi-dimensionality, but most of the time, they are comfortable just being cut-outs of father- or mother- or cousin-figures who happen to be big Greeks.
Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan are the best parts of the film – in spite of being mostly one-dimensional, they are hilarious in their parts, and while towards the end Constantine is eerily skillful at seeming senile, they deliver consistently superior performances. Kazan seems on top of her craft throughout and is without fail hilarious, sharing some of the best lines in the movie with Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin).
The two leads play off each other quite well most of the time, but are far from being the most entertaining parts of the film. They work because Toula spends most of the movie looking at her family in shock and rolling her eyes, while Ian$5 spends most of it smiling stupidly. He is certainly the most forgettable part of the movie, because all he does is nod as everyone else tries to change him.
And Toula is the most boring part of the family, albeit the most normal. Frankly, Ian must have a bigger sense of humor than he puts up to want to marry her, because all that’s shown is a boring guy with boring parents who is just a little too “perfect” to be real. Whenever Toula freaks out because the really fun people in her family start acting like crazies, he soothes her with pseudo-sentimental crap and she becomes weak in the knees and forgets her murderous urges to end it all in a big fat Greek multiple homicide.
However, it’s when they become sentimental that the movie loses its luster. Vardalos obviously didn’t want her film to be simply a farce with Greek caricatures going about talking about silly Greek things like gyros, tzidkis and democracy. Nevertheless, there is no easy way to go from a heart-to-heart about, well, “matters of the heart” to Toula’s brother teaching Ian the Greek words for “I have three testicles,” when all Ian thinks it means is “let’s all go in the house.”
Furthermore, it’s all extremely giddy. Very, very giddy and feel-good, but not enough to make the sentimental speeches work. So much so, it seems that they’re there to make the story have a moral: “it’s ok if you have a wacky family, you can still find Prince Charming.”
I mean, this is a romantic comedy. This fact of genre is always obvious because when the music is not recognizably Greek, it sounds like it came right out of an eighties romantic comedy. Listen to it. Whenever Toula and Ian are on screen alone, it’s like they rehashed the synthesizer and the drums from “Say Anything.”
It doesn’t matter. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” works on most levels, but fails notably on a couple of important ones. Once you get over the fact that minor things like “plot” or “romantic leads” aren’t there, you’re good to go. But Toula’s family’s really funny. Take this opportunity to laugh at them, because whenever I laugh at my family, they threaten to disown me.