In 2002, I was a relatively green member of the CityBeat film section with only a little more than a year’s time covering the beat. I received a call from my editor about an interview opportunity in support of an under-the-radar film that was starting to generate some low-level buzz during a terribly limited rollout. Word of mouth seemed to be driving audiences. There was no major promotional assault on television or in print.
A curiously alternative plan was underway. A couple of the film’s producers — Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, you may have heard of them — decided to set up a traveling roadshow tour, sending the movie’s stars out to conduct meet and greets with regional press, while hyping up target audiences through radio and local television segments. I had so little experience with film distribution models, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard that Cincinnati was even included on the list for this kind of old-school blitz.
I started paying attention to the trade magazine reporting on the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and how its star and screenwriter Nia Vardalos had excavated her own cultural roots as a Greek-American, unearthing the comedic clash between her immigrant family and the American society they had settled in. She tapped into the humorous discomfort felt by a first-generation American — and a woman to boot — seeking to make a connection with, and ultimately bring in, an outsider.
I caught the film, an engaging soufflé with a clever mix of tart and spicy jokes about families and cultures that attempt to stay together and to stay whole and uncorrupted by the bland barbarians at the gate. My Big Fat Greek Wedding wasn’t a strenuous social/cultural battleground, though. Vardalos was a conscientious and gentle lover of both sides in this tame conflict. She stood between the two, while each kissed her cheeks and made peace through her.
A date was arranged for a sit-down with Vardalos and co-star John Corbett at a downtown hotel. I spent almost an hour with them, benefitting from being their final interview of the Cincinnati trip, and truly got to know the stars and, by extension, the world of characters Vardalos let loose.
So, now, almost 15 years later, Vardalos gathers the Portokalos clan for a big fat reunion, a replay of all the Greek shtick and wedding hijinks that we could have ever wanted. The operative word is replay. This time out, the entire affair unspools like a greatest hits of gags. Toula (Vardalos) continues to wallow in a state of bemusement and discomfort with the closeness of her family (the main unit lives together as next door neighbors in suburban Chicago). Her father Gus (Michael Constantine), despite failing health, still runs the family restaurant, and has instilled his outrageous sense of Greek pride in his rowdy and raucous grandsons, who explain the Greek roots of all words and lay claim to the belief that everything in the modern world came from Greece. Mama Maria (Lainie Kazan) remains the loving and faithful matriarch. Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin) provides saucy advice and rules the roost like a kinky dictator.
Initially, the clash emerges between Toula and her 17-year-old daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris), who is chafing, even moreso than Toula did so many years ago, under the ever-present dominance of the family. She wants to escape so that she can have the real opportunity to find herself. Vardalos wastes a chance to expand the narrative by not spotlighting the contrasts between mother and daughter, because there are hints that Toula realizes that she is stuck in the role of family fixer with no life of her own.
Another element, which feels a bit manufactured, involves the illegitimacy of the marriage between Gus and Maria, necessitating the need for another wedding. Once the problem is introduced, Maria balks over rushing to remarry Gus. She wonders if there is more for her, besides having birthed Greek babies and taking care of the home.
I so wish Vardalos had explored these gender-based generational issues instead of rounding up the usual suspects for the chorus line of broad jokes. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 could have been so much more than a reunion. It could have offered us the chance to celebrate the progression of family and culture in the face of a brave new world. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: C-