Disappointing, but admirable effort

Screenwriters are told, over and over again, to be continually raising the stakes in their work, building up to some magical climactic point near the end of the movie after which everything can resolve and subside, bathing the audience in some kind of afterglow. The reason for this is the perception that people just want to be overwhelmed by a spectacle bigger than they might have imagined.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the antithesis of this philosophy. We are in our seats to see and hear a simple story of how this thirty-something Greek-American gets to be married. We have no kidnappers, no threats of death and destruction, just an opportunity to watch people and laugh at the little eccentricities that make us human.

The script is an adaptation of a one-woman show by our lead, Nia Vardalos. The basis of the story is her own life - apparently enough so that our eventual groom has the same first name as her husband. We start in the midst of an apparent ugly duckling story, with dowdy-ified Toula growing up in the Portokalos family. Fortunately, that stale bit is dropped pretty quickly and doesn't resurface. The main work this part does is to introduce us to the characters, and use a chance meeting with Mr. Eventual Right as a prod to get Toula active in the world, as well as to de-dowdy-ify her. This feels like a slight tug-of-war between being true to what really happened and keeping a sensible story.

The continual background is the Portokalos family and their Greek ways. The father has fashioned columns around his house, statues in the yard, and a Greek flag on the garage door. I don't think it has anything to do with being Greek, but he also sprays Windex on his injuries. The women are always cooking and gabbing, and everyone wears their emotions on their sleeves as they come and go from all the businesses owned by various people in the family. The girls are taught to look forward to marrying a Greek man, which is all they are set up to live for, aside from the cooking. Toula has not set down this path, the resistance coming largely from her self-fulfilling perception of her looks.

The now somewhat self-assured Toula meets - for real this time - Ian, they fall in love. She hides it from her family, because she already knows the decidedly non-Greek Ian will cause problems. Of course, such secrecy cannot last.

And so, we have culture clash that sustains the rest of the film, resulting in the wedding of the title. It's a good story, one you wouldn't mind hearing from your neighbor a couple extra times over the fence. It barely sustains the movie, however. The humor does a good job bolstering the story throughout, but some jokes simply fall flat.

A small part of my interest in this film was seeing John Corbett of Sex and the City in the Ian role. The part is a good one for him - his brief character setup - of a man bored with his life - is believable the way he says it. Yet I can't help but think he must have gotten bored with the part. In some ways, he is used little better than set decoration here. I've seen him stretch much further on the HBO series.

This sort of film is usually given over to such things as character and character development. There's some of both here - definitely more on character - but at some point we've stopped making new observations and are just rehashing the old ones. Some judicious editing could have made this into a lovely wedding video.

I can make an inexact comparison with a much better film - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - which deals with similar material, though in a more confrontational manner. Interestingly, in that film, in addition to the explorations of character, the stakes start relatively high and stay that way for the duration. Maybe it pays to heed a little bit of advice now and again.

I'm padding this upward a little bit for the effort. It really is a nice effort, but thumbing one's proverbial nose at conventional ideas does not by itself make a good movie. But it is refreshing to not have to deal with knowing exactly when we're due for an escalating event on the plotline. More power to them.

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