Monday, September 24, 2012

Greek Default

Born 1962

The nation of Greece has had problems recently: a towering debt, an inability to provide for its citizens, the British refusal to hand over the Elgin Marble to Athens.  Despite this, it has given us great drama, philosophy, architecture.  The list of Greek artistic contributions is incomparable.

And then there's Nia Vardalos...

For a civilization that has given us truly titanic performers such as Maria Callas and...and...well, I don't have anything against Nia Vardalos, but I am beginning to wonder whether she has cashed in all the goodwill she got from milking (or perhaps mocking) her ancestry and all their delightful eccentricities.

I am in a minority in that I was neither charmed or impressed with Nia Vardalos' breakthrough film My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  In that movie, she makes a big deal about being Greek and the quirks that come with it.  I've seen it a few times, and frankly, I fail to see why so many people were so enthralled with it.

I suppose the humor comes from what is suppose to be a delightful culture clash between the WASP Millers (of which the ever-hunky Ian {John Corbett} belonged to) and the Greek Portokalos clan (the Nia Vardalos character).  I however, was quite irritated, almost angered, at how Vardalos appeared to treat her Greek family.

What I saw were two parents who fled violence in their homeland to earn success in America (well, technically Canada, but why split hairs?), made a comfortable life for their children, and generally become entrepreneurs (her father with his restaurant, her aunt with a travel agency).  Yes, they were exaggerated in their passion of all things Greek, but while the Greek flag painted on the garage door was a touch too much I fail to see why it was a source of such horror. 

Perhaps because I am Mexican-American, I am numb to seeing others with the Aztec eagles on their car windows and the Mexican flag flying over El Paso.  In fact, most people of Mexican descent in El Paso, even those of third or fourth generation, think of themselves as "Mexican" and will almost always root for Mexico over the U.S. in soccer or boxing.

Who says Hispanics aren't integrating into the mainstream?

In any case, when Toula told us she had I think 18 first cousins, I wasn't impressed.  I have 18 first cousins too, and that's just on my mom's side.  Being Mexican, my dear Nia,  I am well-acquainted with large families. 

What really angered me is that for a film that is suppose to be a celebration of family and of our various ancestries, MBFGW appeared to go out of its way to mock them.  Toula was constantly horrified and embarrassed that her Greek relations couldn't measure up to her WASP-ish aspirations.  Everything they did to show how honoring their ancestry and customs only served to have Toula hang her head in shame: the Greek Orthodox baptism and Easter celebrations, the large family get-togethers, the Portokalos' unfamiliarity with bunt cakes and heaping helpings to ouzo. 

My impression of Toula was a negative one: this spoiled woman embarrassed by the family that does genuinely love her (even if at times it's a smothering love) and who wants desperately to be anything other than what she is, who wants independence but doesn't want to stand up for herself against a very old-world father.  Why she couldn't tell her Windex-loving father that she is 30 years old and doesn't need to have her newest boyfriend (who apparently, might have been her FIRST boyfriend) come in to ask permission to date her is beyond me.

Honey, I've been there.  Many things about my family embarrass me (their love for the Cowboys, their feuds going on for generations), but I have also learned to embrace certain things.  If I ever have a daughter, I will insist on a quinceañera.  I didn't fine much to shout "Opah" about MBFGW, but didn't hate it either. 

As a side note, I think Ian was remarkably compliant to the wishes of her very peculiar brood.  He went along with everything they wanted no matter how trivial or insulting it might have been to him or his own with no complaints whatsoever.  She should count herself lucky that she found her Ian (if it was half Puerto Rican-Ian GOMEZ, and to be frank when I think of WASPs, Boriquas are not the first to come to mind, yet I digress). 

Ultimately, fine: you get your relatively harmless little 'let's make fun of the Greeks romantic comedy.  How then to parlay such success? 

How's this for an 'original' idea?  Two second-rate performers witness a mob murder, so they go on the lamb as women pretending to be men pretending to be women?

Well, no I wasn't describing Some Like It Hot Meets Victor/Victoria.  I was describing Connie & Carla, her follow-up to My Big Fat Greek Wedding.   To her credit, she didn't try to get gold by mining the same least not immediately.

Instead, she came up with a screenplay that appears all but ripped off from two better films.  I don't think for one nanosecond that Vardalos was trying to pull a fast one here, despite some surprising parallels in story.  However, once one is given carte-blanche to do just about anything (a rarity in Hollywood), why did she opt to make a movie about women pretending to both be drag queens AND running from the mob?

It all seems like Vardalos was trying to throw in too much into one film.  I would have advised her to drop the Mafia storyline and go straight for the drag (no pun intended).  The story could have focused on how these two women, desperate for a job, tried (apparently with success) to pass themselves off as men.  However, I do wonder whether Connie & Carla relies on stereotypes. 

Are gay men all really that obsessed with musicals and drag queens?  I know a few gay people, and they enjoy football (not necessarily football players--they can give you statistics and plays), and I know straight people who hate sports but love opera.  Go Figure.

OK, so you had a bomb right after the Big Hit.  No worries: let's get back to formula.  People love laughing at Greeks?  All right, let's give them more Greek humor. 

Enter My Life In Ruins (what IS it with Vardalos and bad puns). I joked at the time that it should have been re-titled My Career In Ruins, and even those who loved laughing (with/at) over the shenanigans among her relatives couldn't muster doing the same over the same schtick with the natives.  One need only look at the name given to the romantic lead (Poupi Kakas) to realize this is going to be terrible. 

Seriously, Nia?  Poupi Kakas?  Isn't it enough that you've ridiculed your relatives that you have to reduce yourself to making fun of their names?!

Poupi Kakas?  That's something a four-year-old would find hilarious.  Here, it's just embarrassing. 

Now we'll cut Vardalos a bit of slack in that she didn't write My Life In Ruins, but she went along with it.  Whether she thought 'Poupi Kakas' was funny or not I have no way of knowing, but it was a mistake all around to try for something like this.  Given that Toula Miller worked at a travel agency, it might have gone better if this HAD been a sequel.  Heck, it might have been about the Ian-Toula honeymoon: what better place than the motherland?

The poster certainly indicates it is.  Note that like in MBFGW, the characters are off on the side, observing her.  It references a 'going to Greece' by the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

After My Life/Career In Ruins bombed (her second bomb), maybe it wasn't the Greek angle that needed revisiting.  Maybe it was the John Corbett angle.  After all, a little Aidan goes a long way.  Hence, I Hate Valentine's Day, which not only brings Corbett and Vardalos together again (giving such romantic teams as Day & Hudson, Powell & Loy, Astaire & Rogers and Tracy & Hepburn a run for their money) but which Vardalos both wrote AND directed. 

Yet again we have another bomb.  Not a disappointment, but a bomb.   I venture to say the leads weren't the only ones who hated THIS Valentine's Day.  For this, Vardalos has herself and herself only to blame.  She's the star, the writer, and the director.  If it failed on those three fronts, then it is her fault and her fault alone.

So far we have ONE hit, THREE flops.  So now what?  Well, let's write a screenplay with her longtime mentor Tom Hanks where the Everyman plays an Everyman going cheerfully through the Great Recession.

I've said enough about Larry Crowne, a film I disliked intensely and that shows that it doesn't matter what your politics, the 1% (of which Hanks is) will not understand the 99%.  When they attempt to (as Hanks & his co-writer Vardalos did with Larry Crowne), the results are almost insulting to those who use their hard-earned money to pay these elitists who think World War II was a racist war against the sweet Japanese who did us no harm.      

On this her birthday, I offer advise to Nia Vardalos.  First, STOP WRITING.  You wrote ONE thing that was popular, but after that every screenplay you've offered has been rejected by the American public.  If it weren't for your patron Tom Hanks, I imagine your other stories wouldn't see the light of day.

Two, character parts are what you should do.  I don't think you aren't without some abilities, but you are not a leading lady.  Even in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, people didn't come to see you.

Three, don't expect to go to the well and continue drawing water.  You went down the Greek route to disastrous results.  You went down the John Corbett route with even more disastrous results.  I suggest you try finding things where you don't have to carry a picture and where you don't milk your heritage to the Nth degree.  Zorba was less chatty about his heritage than you.

I should also point out that for someone who makes an almost annoying deal about being of Greek descent, you chose to Anglicize your name: Bar-Dallas rather than the more Greek-sounding Varr-Dah-Lows. Just a thought. 

With that, I wish a Happy 50th Birthday to Nia Vardalos. 



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