After My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Nia Vardalos seemed poised for huge success. Expectations were diminished slightly when the follow-up sit-com, My Big Fat Greek Life, sank like the Titanic. No, better make that the Lusitania, since Titanic stayed afloat longer than the TV show.
The premature cratering of the series shouldn’t take anything away from what she achieved in this inspired adaptation of her one-woman stage show. Rita Wilson certainly knew what she was doing when she persuaded husband Tom Hanks to produce Vardalos’ acerbic love letter to her Greek heritage.
Toula Portokalos (Vardalos) is a frumpy thirty-year-old daughter of a large Greek family. At her age, being unmarried is as much a failure and a scandal as a Kennedy failing to pass the bar exam. She seems condemned to work the rest of her life waiting tables at Dancing Zorba’s, the family’s restaurant, weathering the constant nagging from her parents, aunts, siblings and enough cousins to constitute the world’s fourteenth largest army.
Desperate to break out of this rut, she tells her parents that she’s going to start taking classes. Fearing that this will take time away from finding a good Greek husband, her father Gus (Michael Constantine) objects. Fortunately, Toula’s mother (Lainie Kazan) sides with her daughter and apparently in a Greek family, the wife winning the argument is as dependable as the sunrise.
At college, Toula starts to blossom, coming out of her shell, learning to dress stylishly and trading her glasses for contacts. This leads to a job at her Aunt Voula’s (Andrea Martin) travel agency and an eventual encounter with Ian Miller (John Corbett), a handsome school teacher. Charming and successful, he would seem like perfect husband material if not for one fatal flaw: He’s a xeno, a non-Greek.
Clearly in love with Toula, Ian will do anything he needs to win over her family, especially her horrified father Gus, who’s basically the Greek Ensign Chekov (Everything worthwhile was invented in Greece). This is no small order. Just surviving her extended family is a challenge. Together in one room, they are an assault on the senses in the same way the Normandy invasion can be compared to a bar fight.
The other obstacles are Ian’s WASPish parents (Lutherans, judging by the bundt cake they bring to a family gathering). Every time the two families get together, the Millers are outnumbered like the Germans at Stalingrad.
The movie derives its charm from both the sweetly handled romance and the comic eccentricities of the Portokalos family. Vardalos is sweet and charming and Corbett has lost none of his appeal from this Northern Exposure days. Toula’s relatives are broad but never shallow caricatures or stereotypes. Their Greek-ness is just the setup but never the punchline. My Big Fat Greek Wedding gets its laughs from their individual quirks and never talks down to its characters. Nia Vardalos obviously loves her heritage while acknowledging that, to the outside world, this must all seem pretty strange.