My Big Fat Greek Wedding (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It is the unenviable lot of the film critic to endure a long string of so-called "romantic comedies", most of which are only marginally romantic, and not at all funny. So, when there's an exception to the rule, it's worth taking notice. Such is the case with Joel Zwick's My Big Fat Greek Wedding, an independent picture which has proven to be 2002's little engine that could. Watching this movie is like eating cotton candy - there's a lot of sweetness and not much substance, but it's a joy to consume while it lasts.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding starts out as a modern day Cinderella story and culminates with the traditional end to most fairy tale romances - the wedding, with all of its associated complexities and mishaps. There's a significant element of cultures clashing here, as well. The three primary rules of life for a young Greek woman are to (1) marry a Greek boy, (2) make Greek babies, and (3) feed everyone for the rest of your life. So, when Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos) becomes involved with the not-at-all-Greek Ian Miller (John Corbett), she's set to create a family uproar.

When the film opens, Toula is a seating hostess at her father's downtown Chicago Greek restaurant, "Dancing Zorba's." At age 30, Toula has pretty much given up hopes of romance and marriage, as indicated by her frumpy appearance. Then Toula decides to embark upon a course of self-improvement, the first step of which is taking computer classes as a local college. Her father, Gus (Michael Constantine), is not enthusiastic about this, but her mother, Maria (Lainie Kazan), convinces him to pay for the education. Soon, Toula's outlook on her life has improved. She gives herself a makeover and starts to work in her aunt's travel agency. Then she meets Ian.

Actually, the two had previously met, albeit briefly, when Ian stopped in for a bite to eat at "Dancing Zorba's." On that occasion, Toula was struck dumb by Ian's handsome visage. This time, the attraction is mutual. Soon, they are dating, then sleeping together, then are engaged. And that's when things get tricky. Toula's father, who was unhappy to learn that she was dating a non-Greek, nearly has an apoplexy when his daughter breaks the news to him that she intends to marry someone whose parents are as "white bread" as they come.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is more in the nature of an embrace and celebration of Greek culture than it is a lampoon. Sure, there are times when it pokes fun, but, on those occasions, it is gentle and kind-hearted, not nasty or sarcastic. And many of the foibles attributed to the Portokalos family would apply equally to any ethnic clan, regardless of whether they're Greek, Italian, Polish, Spanish, etc. A key to deriving enjoyment from this sort of movie is the ability to laugh not just at others, but at oneself.

The movie is consistently funny without ever going over the top (except, perhaps, with the bit of physical comedy that accompanies Toula and Ian's meeting at the travel agency) - a rarity in movies. While some of the comedy is more witty than sidesplitting, there are plenty of opportunities for belly laughs. More than one of these relates to Gus' strange belief that any sort of physical infirmity or infection can be cured by a spritz of Windex. (This may have been a product placement, but I don't think so, and, even if it is, it's hilarious enough to be worth it.) And, in the process of boosting the laugh quotient, My Big Fat Greek Wedding does not lose sight of the characters. That's an important quality for any movie that wants to keep its audience invested in the eventual outcome.

The actors all play their roles well. Nia Vardalos (who also wrote the screenplay) cleans up nicely. At the beginning of the film, her Toula is genuinely uncomely. And, while the makeover greatly improves Toula's appearance and sex appeal, she doesn't turn into a stunner. Vardalos is not traditionally beautiful, but she is striking and has a good handle on the material. John Corbett, probably still best known for his role in "Northern Exposure", approaches the part of Ian with an easy grace and charm. Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan have no difficulty sliding into the largely stereotyped roles of the grudging father and supportive mother.

Perhaps it's the presence of Kazan, but this film reminded me of a little-seen 1992 feature called I Don't Buy Kisses Anymore. Starring Jason Alexander and Nia Peeples, that film was about the cross-cultural romance between an overweight Jewish bachelor (Alexander) and a lively Italian graduate student (Peeples), whose family owned an Italian restaurant. Kazan played Alexander's mother. The film is not as complete or consistent as My Big Fat Greek Wedding (more traditional clich├ęs are employed by the screenplay), but there are enough similarities to recommend the earlier film to anyone who enjoys this one.

Although My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a breakthrough for director Joel Zwick (who has a ton of TV credits to his name, but nothing of note on the big screen) and writer Vardalos, its success is perhaps not as surprising as some pundits would lead the movie-going public to believe. One of the producers is Tom Hanks, a man who is known for possessing something of a Midas' Touch. In the last decade, it's hard to think of any failed project that Hanks has been involved with. In this case, he clearly liked what he saw, and leant his name and support to the movie. The result is an appealing blend of laughter, romance, and ethnic flavoring - an independent production to be appreciated for its likability and humor.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (United States, 2002)

Director: Joel Zwick
Cast: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Joey Fatone
Screenplay: Nia Vardalos
Cinematography: Jeffery Jur
Music: Xandy Janko, Chris Wilson
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:34
U.S. Release Date: 2002-04-19
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1