July 2020

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

DIRECTOR: Joel Zwick

CAST: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Lainie Kazan, Michael Constantine, Andrea Martin, Louis Mandylor, Joey Fatone


My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a bit of the little engine that could of 2002 (ultimately grossing $368 million worldwide, against a budget of only $5 million), a small indie movie and a very personal (semi autobiographical) passion project for writer and star Nia Vardalos that got financial backing with the help of producers Rita Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks.  In fact, the movie turned into a sleeper hit to the extent that it’s almost become overhyped.  My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a pleasant, unambitious concoction that goes down easily and pleasantly while remaining a trifle on the insubstantial side.  It gets the bulk of its limited mileage out of its blend of cross-cultural observational comedy and vaguely Cinderella-esque story, but even at its slim hour and a half runtime, it starts to run out of places to go before we get to the titular wedding, which is indeed big and Greek.

Our vaguely Cinderella-esque heroine is Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos), who dryly informs us via running narration that Greek women have three purposes in life: marry Greek men, make Greek babies, and feed everyone until the day they die.  When we open, Toula is a seating hostess at the Chicago restaurant owned by her very large, very loud, very Greek family, led by her patriarchial, old-fashioned father Gus (Michael Constantine) and feisty mother Maria (Lainie Kazan).  Frumpy and unfulfilled, Toula sets out on a course of self-improvement, first finagling her parents’ financial support for computer classes at the local community college, giving herself a makeover, and going to work for her aunt’s (Andrea Martin) travel agency.  But when she meets a handsome stranger with the thoroughly un-Greek name of Ian Miller (John Corbett), the forbidden romance throws everything into disarray.

Unsurprisingly considering it was written from the semi-autobiographical perspective of Nia Vardalos about her own experiences growing up as a Greek-American and marrying a non-Greek (her real-life husband, Ian Gomez, also appears in the film in a smaller supporting role), My Big Fat Greek Wedding pokes fun at Greek culture more gently than with any real hard-edged satire.  There is the occasional more serious moment involving Toula butting heads with her stuck-in-his-ways traditional father, but ultimately it’s more of a celebration of Greekness than a mockery.  Many of the foibles assigned to Toula’s “Old World” father and her smothering family is universal across ethnic lines; a very similar movie could have been made out of My Big Fat Italian Wedding, My Big Fat Polish Wedding, My Big Fat Russian Wedding, My Big Fat Chinese Wedding, etc, without changing much besides some details.  Most of the humor is of the mildly amusing variety more than laugh-out-loud moments (though there is a brief bit of slapsticky physical comedy when Toula and Ian meet at her office), such as Gus’ insistence that any word in any language can be traced back to Greek, and his belief in Windex as a cure-all for any ailment.  There’s times when it deals excessively in stereotypes, such as an awkward meeting with Ian’s painfully white bread, uptight parents (Bruce Gray and Fiona Reid), who react to the Portokalos clan as if being abducted by aliens, but for the most part it’s subdued and low-key.  Alas, while it’s never a chore to sit through, and goes down pleasantly and easily, the movie’s modest, sitcom-ish charms aren’t even enough to fully sustain it through its slim hour and a half runtime, and it feels like it runs out of things to do before we’re through.

Unsurprisingly considering its indie origins, there’s not any “stars” in the cast, but it’s populated with a few character actors as well as some lesser-known faces.  Writer Nia Vardalos has cast herself in the lead (she vetoed some studio suggestions aimed at making the film more “marketable”, including casting the lead role with Marisa Tomei and changing the family’s background to Hispanic), and while Vardalos is not a great actress, she’s a comfortable fit for the role (unsurprisingly considering she wrote it for herself and has at least partially based it on her own experiences).  The movie subverts some cliches when it comes to Toula’s makeover.  At the beginning, she’s legitimately frumpy and unattractive, not “Hollywood ugly”.  Later, while she cleans up nicely, she also doesn’t go the route of exaggeratedly magically transforming into a great beauty.  John Corbett brings his easygoing charm to the unchallenging role of the laidback love interest.  Veteran character actors Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan slip easily into the stereotyped roles of the stubborn father and more supportive mother.  Incidentally, this is not the first time Kazan has played this character type, previously playing a similar role in 1992’s I Don’t Buy Kisses Anymore, a movie about a cross-cultural romance between a Jew played by Jason Alexander and an Italian played by Nia Peeples, in which Kazan played Alexander’s mother.

Despite its startling box office success, I suspect My Big Fat Greek Wedding is like a slice of fluffy dessert: it goes down easily and pleasantly and lets the viewer walk away with a smile on their face, but doesn’t linger long in the memory.  It’s a light, frothy concoction that fulfills its purpose of low-key “feel good” entertainment but isn’t likely to make the lasting cultural impact its runaway profits might suggest.

* * 1/2