My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)


(director: Joel Zwick; screenwriter: Nia Vardalos; cinematographer: Jeff Jur; editor: Mia Goldman; music: Xandy Janko; cast: Nia Vardalos (Toula Portokalos), John Corbett (Ian Miller), Michael Constantine (Gus Portokalos), Lainie Kazan (Maria Portokalos), Andrea Martin (Aunt Voula), Joey Fatone (Angelo), Louis Mandylor (Nick Portokalos), Bruce Gray (Rodney Miller), Fiona Reid (Harriet Miller), Ian Gomez (Mike), Stavroula Logothettis (Athena), Gia Carides (Nikki), Bess Meisler (Yiayia); Runtime: 95; IFC Films; 2002)

“This romantic/comedy asks the question how much souvlaki can you take before indigestion sets in.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This romantic/comedy asks the question how much souvlaki can you take before indigestion sets in. It’s a non-stop ethnic joke film, where there is an unhealthy dose of eccentric characters and familiar running gags and set-up comic situations that you can see coming from a mile away. This is the kind of sentimental sitcom film that does everything it can to be liked and become a crowd pleaser. It has a grandmother fresh from Greece and dressed in a black shroud, who points her finger at everyone in disgust because she thinks they are Turks. There’s Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin), who has this weird look in her eyes and is the funniest one in the film. When she’s faced with serving a vegetarian teacher, she says she’ll cook him lamb as if that’s a vegetarian staple. There’s also a cousin of Nikki’s, whose main virtue is that she has big boobs and loves to show them off. To take care of the atmospheric part there’s plenty of ouzo to drink, Greek dancing, and lots of ethnic love and traditional folk music. The film’s box-office success comes from word of mouth, not from much film critic acclaim.

It’s a tale of intermarriage between a large and noisy Greek family and a dry and polite Wasp family. The humor is all about ethnic nagging and stereotype jokes referring to Greeks and Wasps as people with different genes. It’s all rather tame stuff and geared for an audience that doesn’t mind seeing a television kind of drama that is fit for the bland 1950s, or for those who just want to be lightly entertained by something warm-hearted after 9/11.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is based upon the one-woman show in L.A. by Nia Vardalos. She’s a veteran performer from Second City improvisation troupe in Chicago. In the film adaptation she’s the screenwriter and star. She’s pictured as a frumpy unmarried virgin, the eldest of three children, the 30-year-old Toula (Vardalos), who works as a seating hostess in her parents’ Chicago Greek restaurant (Dancing Zorba’s) and wonders if life has passed her by. Her younger sister Athena is married to a Greek and the youngest one in the family, her jokester brother Nick, only dates Greek women. She is shamed by her nagging immigrant father Gus (Michael Constantine) calling her old. He wants her to get married to a nice Greek boy and believes everything Greek is right. His two other shticks are that he goes around with a Windex sprayer because he believes a little squirt can cure anything and he has the uncanny ability to find the Greek root for any word, even kimono. His obedient wife Maria (Lainie Kazan) handles her secondary role in the house philosophically by saying: “her hubby might be the head of the house, but she’s the neck. And, the head can’t move without the neck.”

After taking one look at the long-haired hunk English high school teacher Ian Miller (John Corbett), who came into her diner, Toula falls madly in love and decides to have a makeover. She gets a new hairstyle, dons designer clothes and contact lenses, and enrolls for a college computer course. She then changes jobs and works in Aunt Voula’s travel agency after getting mom to trick her father into going for this move. Here she meets Ian again and begins their sugary relationship. The predictable plot goes through the following: the drill of the father forbidding the daughter to see the non-Greek, their secret romance and necking in the car, the boy’s Waspish parents serving as an amusing contrast to her loud and close-knit family of 27 first cousins, a cousin spotting them kissing in the parking lot and it getting back to the enraged father through the family grapevine; and, then of course, there’s the wedding after he gets baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. No conversion meant no acceptance into the family, which speaks volumes of how accepting a family this is. But the filmmaker makes no big deal of this and expects the viewer to overlook it and only notice that Ian is so much in love that he will do anything to please Toula.

The film gets the laughs it so maneuvers for due to Nia Vardalos knowing her autobiographical material so well, but the uninspired direction by television regular Zwick leaves no lasting impression. This Greek film could easily be substituted for any other ethnic group such as Jewish or Italian and you would have the same sitcom. It’s a pedestrian work. I wasn’t excited about the parodies of either culture and certainly didn’t view this as a woman’s lib film. It’s hard to see this film as rising above the low ethnic bar it set for itself.