My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Director: Joel Zwick / Screenplay: Nia Vardalos / Editing: Mia Goldman / DP: Jeffrey Jur / Music: Alexander Janko
Cast: Nia Vardalos / Michael Constantine / Lainie Kazan / Bess Meisler / Andrea Martin / Louis Mandylor / John Corbett / Fiona Reid / Bruce Gray
Get Him to the Greek…
A recent mini-break in close proximity to a town over-burdened with charity shops, all with DVDs for sale, left me totting-up the favourite ‘most-unwanted’ titles. Amidst the Top Gear annuals, various American Pies and more Peppa the Pig than anyone could ever want or need, one title stood head and shoulders above the herd. If the number of copies from which to choose were a competition, then My Big Fat Greek Wedding would be the clear, undisputed winner.
So here we are: £1.50 lighter, but far richer in experience.
A Canadian writer, comedienne and alumni of Chicago’s ‘Second City’ comedy club, Nia Vardalos drew on her large Greek family for what was, initially, a successful stage-show. She wrote a funny, sparky monologue to chart the quirks and whims of her relatives and explore how familial ties impacted her decision to marry a non-Greek… For such a close-knit family & community, Vardalos’ decision was not without its share of dramas, though ultimately, all were grist in the writer’s mill.
In the end, the show saw a transfer to New York and was seen by Tom Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson, who recommended not only that Tom should see the show, but that Playtone – their production company – should turn it into a movie: history will record that to have been an inspired investment…
From the off, we’re in good hands as a schlubby, mousey Toula (Vardalos) opens-up the family restaurant ‘Dancing Zorba’s’, along with Dad, Gus, played by the wonderfully crusty Michael Constantine. It’s a rainy pre-dawn morning in Chicago: no wonder Toula’s grunting & moving like an automaton: there are times when I know how she feels. Flashbacks ensue, showing her schooldays, while a witty – funny! – VO from Vardalos rattles alongside: ‘At Greek school, I learned valuable lessons like, if Nick has one goat and Maria has nine, how soon will they marry?’
Members of the extended family are introduced as they arrive for breakfasts of coffee & Souvlaki. Despite there being a lot of business for the script to cover, the writing’s so good early-on – and the performances so natural – that Vardalos’ turn as Cinderella doesn’t feel gratuitous.
Cinderella? Of course, for in her outfit the colour of ‘three shades of camel’ and with flat, straight hair to match, Toula is the frumpy ‘before’ photo in an advert for a makeover parlour… As if things weren’t bad enough, she works all-hours in ‘Zorba’s on a token wage (methinks) and then has to live in the same house as her colleagues / relatives… While everyone else ‘seems’ to be getting ‘out’ into the world, enjoying big careers & big marriages (with BIG children, natch), Toula’s stuck at ‘Zorba’s watching her potential ebb with every new day. Worse, she sees the truth of it all: no-one’s going anywhere. They’re all inter-marrying with other Greek families in the city and cutting few apron strings in the process.
It all comes to a head for Toula one morning, when her frustrations propel her into the alley out-back where she yearns for ‘something better’: it’s the classic Disney ‘Something out there’ moment, where a young protagonist’s dream takes physical shape. I half-expected an animated bluebird to land on her shoulder and start chirping…
In Toula’s case, that ‘something’ is a flyer, advertising an IT course at the local college, although staring at it is all she can manage at this stage. That is, until the handsome
Prince [stranger] walks into the cellar [restaurant] to meet a work colleague. John Corbett plays Ian Miller in the piece and the on-screen chemistry between himself & Vardalos will prove a still-centre to the maelstrom seen later-on (Non-Spoiler Alert: clue’s in the title).
At this stage, however, all Toula can do is gawp at the poor man, though it’s incentive enough for this ugly duckling to spread her wings in-defiance of Gus, a man who’s pride prevents him from entertaining the idea that Toula’s worth it, let alone capable (in my reading of ‘Wedding-as-Cinderella, he’s the step-mother). Luckily, Toula has a couple of ‘Fairy Godmothers’ on her side and before you know it, she’s getting a new haircut, wardrobe and contact-lenses with all the zeal of Julie Walters in Educating Rita (1983). From there, it’s on to another course: ‘Computers & Tourism’ which, handily, provides an escape route from the restaurant, to a small travel agency owned and run by one of the Godmothers. Actually, that’d be Aunt Voula, played with big hair, big opinions and a bigger heart by Andrea Martin; a perfect foil for Toula’s own mother Maria, played by Lainie Kazan.
Toula’s applying herself to her new job with a gusto that impresses a certain passer-by… Ian thinks he knows who this person is, but can’t be sure; not while Toula’s hiding behind a water-cooler. Confused, he walks-on. Until his return, the show is comprehensively stolen by Bess Meisler as Yiayia, Gus’s elderly mother, who’s mild dementia and constant suspicion that her family are really Turkish, provide broad slapstickery.
Come the hour, cometh the man: as Ian once again catches Toula’s eye and, this time, she matches him. After an embarrassing encounter with an elderly woman out on the street, the long-delayed conversation between them finally gets into gear and, wouldn’t you know it, we go from soup-to-nuts in two shakes of a lamb’s tail…
In Ian’s path stands Gus, who refuses to countenance the idea of Toula marrying a non-Greek. Instead – and to remind her of what she’ll be missing – he invites a trio of potential suitors over to the house for dinner (one of them resembles Lord Lucan, while another’s a spoon-licking Satyr in a Lurex shirt).
Needless to say, when Ian proposes shortly after, Toula accepts, to her Dad’s evident desolation. Gus produced the dinner-dates, believing one of them might have his daughter’s glass slipper, without realising she’d been wearing Ian’s for some time: and that it fits perfectly…
Which brings us to the meat, drink – and dancing – of the film.
The first step towards The Main Event comes when Ian decides not to ‘skulk off’ and marry abroad, as that wouldn’t endear him to Toula’s family. Instead, this square-jawed hero (and enlightened college lecturer, to-boot) agrees to a Greek wedding of the Big & Fat variety and to do that, he has to be baptised in a Greek-Orthodox church; too big for the font, he gets a paddling pool…
The engagement party’s next: Ian’s parents showing stunned bemusement at the front-lawn BBQ with its riot of Tiki Torches, spit-roast lamb & Ouzo. Both Harriet (Fiona Reid) and Rodney (Bruce Gray) have – I think – been cast with a sideways glance back to Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, in their blank, almost stony expressions. That said, if we’re talking comparisons to film, check-out Gene Hackman’s superior disbelief at meeting the in-laws in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996). It’s on this night too, that Ian confesses to being a vegetarian. Voula’s priceless response: ‘What do you mean ‘He don’t eat no meat?’ [PAUSE] ‘That’s okay. I make lamb!’
It’s all one, big, happy, culture-clash between Greek and W.A.S.P.. Between frugal simplicity and frantic chaos: little wonder that the central couple find the other’s family so appealing, as they’re at polar extremes to what each of them are used to. Yet only Vardalos, in writing this from her personal experience, can get away with such broad-brush stereotyping. It follows in a comedic tradition, in which gentle ribbing of people can come from within, not without; Woody Allen & Jackie Gleason made entire careers from that very premise…
By the time the Big Day arrives, the chaos & general brouhaha has escalated to a level appropriate for the picture and I’ll leave that to your imagination. It’s all glib and superficial, with characters veering into sitcom-levels of observational manqué. By this point, Vardalos’ sparky VO has long-since fled the scene and we’re left watching a workmanlike film that looks like it’s been thrown together by director Joel Zwick, with little thought other than to drag it over the line; a shame, given its winning start.
Instead, I want to focus on a few observations, beginning with Toula’s struggle to break-away from the expectations placed upon her. As an outsider to the culture, it dawned on me that Toula’s a second-generation immigrant, born in a country of endless possibilities, to parents from a distant land stifled by tradition, offering comparatively few.
Sounds familiar? Isn’t that the very impetus behind any emigrant: to seek a better life for both them AND their children? As Maria admits, it was this very reason that led she & Gus to emigrate in the first place. Yet, with Toula and her contemporaries placed in Greek school, then found jobs in the family business, it’s little wonder she found life in ‘the walled garden’ so stifling and why she wanted-out. Yet it’s the very leaving that’s so hard for someone who yearns to find themselves in the wider culture. How can it be taken lightly, when such intention can so easily be viewed as betrayal?
Toula’s brother, Nick (Louis Mandylor) is inspired by her example and goes through the film with one motivation as far as I can tell: to redesign ‘Zorba’s menu-cover. That’s the sum total of his ambition allowed by the script, yet perpetually cranky Gus, can’t bring himself to have the conversation out of yet more stubborn pride (has he learnt nothing from his treatment of Toula?). The result? Nick’s left in the kitchen, as if HE’S the real Cinderella Man. It’s as if Gus has little emotional capital invested in Toula so can afford to let her go, whereas Nick is
feted doomed to work at ‘Zorba’s ‘till he drops: just like the old man.
Watching Nick break-out? Now THAT would be a film… Instead, we get this fortune-cookie homily from Toula: ‘Don’t let your past dictate who you are. But let it be a part of who you’ll become.’ It’s a pat sentiment, straight out of the Disney Heroine Playbook and on hearing it, I’m sure Nick felt much better as he worked the grill…
Instead, it sounds to me like this is Vardalos / Toula validating her own decisions & life choices, in the hope they might rub-off on someone sitting out there in the dark: someone who needs to hear this stuff. Whoever it is, it sure ‘aint Nick.
I get it: it’s ‘only’ a comedy, but everyone in this picture seems to have no purpose other than to stand in the animated tableaux playing-out on-screen and deliver the occasional zinger. We know as much about them at the end, as we did going-in, which makes sense when you remember that this all worked great as a stage-monologue. However, transitioning a piece from stage-to-screen is bloody difficult, as countless dramatists and screenwriters have learnt to their cost. Film is an unforgiving medium, because both performances and writing are frozen in-time. You either get it, or you don’t. In contrast, someone writing for a live audience has the luxury of being able to tweak things along-the-way that aren’t working. I just think Vardalos should’ve been challenged harder in the process, to find a little more spice amongst the sugar…
While I’m looking for spice, I think more could’ve been made of the culture-clash. It’s a dramatic set-up as old as the Greek hills themselves, but in this piece, Vardalos doesn’t get her hands dirty. While undeniably a witty, observant writer, I think she’s missing a trick by not injecting a little spikiness into proceedings. If you’ve ever seen Damien O’Donnell’s richly observed, nuanced East Is East (1999), you’ll know what I’m driving at. Both films are comedies in the same vein, yet ‘East isn’t afraid to raise the dramatic stakes; its writer all-too-aware that comedy & drama are two sides of the same coin. I can’t shake the feeling that Vardalos is pulling her punches here; that there are aspects of her Canadian-Greek heritage she’s not willing / able to explore, which is a shame – a missed opportunity – as the film would’ve had a stronger spine had she done so (see also Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and Bridesmaids (2011) for stronger takes on similar material).
Oh, and the ‘inspired investment’ I mentioned at the outset? ‘Wedding clocks-in as one of the most commercially-successful movies Of All Time, in terms of return-on-investment. From its initial budget of $15 million, it’s since gone-on to earn almost $370 million which, if nothing else, just goes to show how much I know!
In retrospect, it’s no surprise. ‘Wedding is a feel-good movie that was tooled, primped and powdered for a specific audience and its commercial success was driven – I’m guessing – largely by word-of-mouth; how else to explain a domestic theatrical run of more than a year in some cinemas! A belated sequel appeared in 2016, but the magic had long-since dissipated into thrift-stores the world-over.
Which brings me back to Cinderella… For that’s what Vardalos is channeling here: there’s no room for anything darker. Her story’s Baklava-sweet and as light as air.
It’s just a shame she forgot to add spice to the mixture…
We’re all different. But, in the end, we’re all fruit.