It's Greek To Me

Explaining a "surprise" indie hit's big fat box-office haul

Attending My Big Fat Greek Wedding some 22 weeks into its legendary courtship of middle America, I felt like the nuptial party-crasher who shows up late for what he knows will be a mediocre meal, then leaves complaining about the meager portions. But really: Is there even enough meat on this movie's bone to fill half a gyro?

Directed by 60-year-old TV-sitcom vet Joel Zwick as if he was auditioning for close-up work on a Crest commercial, Wedding is scarcely a minute into the second meeting of Toula (Nia Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) when it scurries for the safety of its genre's lamest convention: the cute musical montage. Never mind about sorry: Here, love means never having to say anything at all. With the lite-rock soundtrack speaking the universal language at full volume, we'll never know what nifty vocab words the English teacher might have used to sweep the former Greek-restaurant hostess off her tired feet. But golly: Those teeth sure are white.

As sitcom auteurs go, Zwick makes Pretty Woman's Garry Marshall look like Martin Scorsese: His would-be colorful collection of ethnic caricatures--hot-tempered, ouzo-swilling Greeks and tightlipped, tight-assed WASPs--would have appeared tired in the year of the first talkie. (Not for nothing does a yawn constitute the film's first line of "dialogue.") But let me not play the equally clichéd role of the snotty reviewer who relishes dissing a strategically simpleminded movie just because it's popular. For all I really want to say here is that the "surprise" success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding--leading to returns of more than $100 million on a $5 million investment, not to mention more than 100 million articles about said surprise--isn't all that surprising. (What should we have expected of an underdog "indie" co-produced by Tom Hanks and co-financed by HBO?) So, too, it shouldn't be a shock to discover that the Cinderella story of the film can't surpass the Cinderella story behind the film--mainly because they're the same story.

What a reception: 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'
What a reception: 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'

As with most blockbuster hits (and more than a few bombs as well), Wedding isn't so much a work of fiction as it is a veiled allegory of its own trip to the altar. (Self-absorption is authenticity in Tinseltown.) In the movie, Vardalos's Toula is an ambitious, 30-year-old Greek-American woman stuck seating customers in her family's neighborhood diner; before the movie, Vardalos herself was an ambitious, thirtysomething Greek-American woman stuck performing a comedic version of her life story in a tiny West Hollywood playhouse. Just as the struggling actor's prayers of reaching a larger audience were answered when Hanks's wife Rita Wilson came to the show and told her she liked it, Toula's dreams of escaping her own theater of cruelty are realized when Corbett's bookworm stops at the restaurant for a quick bite and looks at her twice. Seizing the day, frumpy Toula springs for a pair of contacts, a community-college course, and a tight sweater or two, whereupon she's rewarded with a marriage proposal. Vardalos, doing whatever she had to do, got a movie deal. Still, as befits an "indie," there's a quaint measure of modesty in both happy endings: Toula's penny-pinching dad buys a house for his newlywed daughter; and Vardalos's film, albeit set in Chicago, was shot on the cheap in Canada.

Not to say that the cozy marriage of text and subtext is enough by itself to explain Wedding's reception--though it's probably what makes the film unusually convincing to those throwing rice. Like Jennifer Beals's welder-turned-ballerina, or Julia Roberts's hooker-turned-sweetheart, Vardalos's hostess-turned-bride is the pretty picture of upward mobility. An unknown marries into Hollywood royalty; a star is born right before our eyes. Still, the movie's big fat box-office haul owes equally to the wrapping paper. Far from Temptation Island, the world of Wedding is one in which Ian is perfectly content to make out with Toula in the car time and again before inviting her up to his apartment...for a drink. And at a time when cultural difference has brought Armageddon even to the land of opportunity, the simple message of Toula's father Gus--We're all the same!--is like a slice of vanilla cake before the dance.

Speaking of the words of elders, my own mother-in-law--not Greek, but worldly and wise nonetheless--cut through the Wedding party with a clarity that humbled the critic: "People just really want to laugh right now."

 
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