Nia Vardalos’ semi-autobiographical comedy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, took over the planet all the way back in 2002, grossing well over $350 million dollars worldwide and earning Vardalos an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. However, run-away commercial success, at least here, is not really indicative of the film’s artistic value. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is amusing yet conventional entertainment, defined primarily by broad caricature and a rehashed storyline. The film is an silly and superficial romantic-comedy.
The film recounts the plight of Vardalos’ Toula Portokalos, whose family’s adherence to traditional gender roles has left her feeling stagnated and unsatisfied. In the film’s opening sequences Toula outlines her story through a series of flashbacks, where she sketches out the dynamic involved with existing inside a family unit where there is the simple expectation that any woman will simply “…marry a Greek boy, make Greek babies, and feed everyone until the day she dies.”
This expository scenes are in a way a smaller window to view what both works and doesn’t work with Vardalos’ story. The scenes, while somewhat funny, efficiently staged and crisply written, have the feel (as many reviewers have pointed out) of a slap-sticky sitcom where every next line is a throw-away joke. The film tells us everything (in voice-over) and really shows us nothing illuminating about Greek culture.
Everything is played for the broadest effect. In the film’s first section we meet the main character’s family which consists of her father Gus, whose cultural inflexibility basically forms the entire central dilemma of the story, and whose overblown quirks (such as his belief in Windex being a natural elixir to cure any health concern) provide a few laughs. Little better is the brother character (played by Louis Mandylor) or Joey Fatone’s (of N’Sync fame) character of Cousin Angelo. Both men barely register as being anything outside of obnoxious meat heads.
If there is something resembling a layered character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding it comes in the form of Lainie Kazan’s performance as Maria Portokalos, who delivers some of the film’s best lines (specifically when she explains to her daughter in a hilariously disgusting fashion about how Greek women have to be “tigers” in the bedroom) and is also her daughter’s advocate against the controlling proclivity of the family’s patriarch, Gus. The film sadly makes too little use of Kazan’s presence.
So, with there being very little in the way of an elucidative or didactic perspective on the interior facets of a traditional Greek-American family (outside of the culture apparently possessing a super archaic view on the role of women in society) the film presents viewers with a variation on probably the most dated formula that exists in the art of storytelling. The actual storyline of the film (once it leaves behind the back story of the Toula character) revolves around the remarkably coincidental meeting between Toula and very non-Greek Ian Miller (John Corbet), whose contrasting ethnicity further inflames the ire of curmudgeon Gus, who feels that Toula’s interest in Ian, paired with her desire to actually have a career of her own outside the family’s Greek restaurant, constitutes the ultimate in familial betrayal.
After this set-up the remainder of the film consists of the Toula and Ian attempting to navigate the rather tumultuous reactions of the Portokalos clan once they announce their intention to marry. This comes to its most vivid level when the Portokalos family attempts to host Ian Miller’s upper-crust, buttoned down and generally waspy parents, who are completely unprepared for the ethnic fervor of their son’s in-laws. Still, in keeping up with the cartoonish and bombastic treatment of the Greek people nothing about the scene sticks very long in the mind, except perhaps for the images of the Greek family tossing back a copious amount of alcohol.
As the two central leads Corbet and Vardalo’s make for an entertaining albeit rather bland couple. They are both capable of being engaging on-screen and together they seem to share a believable, bouncy chemistry. Yet, there is really no emotional complexity to be found, aside from Toula’s perpetual exasperation with her family’s erratic behavior. In fact, there probably has never been as accepting a man as Ian Miller, who shows very little in the way of frustration or annoyance with the Greek family’s outrageous response to his Anglo-Saxonism. This lack of complexity has unfortunate implications for the story because it helps create almost a total lack of conflict for the characters involved.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is being released on BluRay this week and the results are, as expected, a product with a beautifully crisp image. As for extras the main highlight is a feature entitled: “A Look Back at My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which is essentially the typical reflective musing that you always see with these anniversary releases elevated by the appearance of both Corbet and Vardalo. The two actors share little anecdotal accounts of the filmmaking process that are genuinely interesting, and the feature also reveals to the uneducated about the important involvement of Tom Hanks in facilitating the film actually getting put into production. This feature is unfortunately more interesting than the storyline contained in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a film which, while certainly big (in terms of number of characters and its depiction of Greek culture) is unfortunately anemic where it truly matters. The viewers coming to the story looking for anything more (such as emotional, cultural, or thematic complexity) than silly hi-jinks and broad caricature will certainly walk away disappointed.