MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING
We Greeks, we are the funny people. So goes a line from an Are You Being Served? episode. That line came to me after seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a surprise hit when it was released in 2002. Having seen it twice now, I was still not overwhelmed or even charmed by this tale of Hellenistic nuptial hijinks. Still, it was tolerable if perhaps surprisingly cruel to the characters.
Told in voiceover, we learn that ever since she was a child, Toula Portokalos (screenwriter Nia Vardalos) has been inundated with and embarrassed by her loud, slightly boorish Greek family. Pretty much everyone in the Portokalos family is eccentric to say the least. Her father Gus (Michael Constantine) tells everyone that every word in existence is rooted in Greek and that all ailments can be cured by spraying Windex. Gus' Greek pride is so deep that he manages to find the Greek root to the word "kimono". Toula's mother Maria (Lanie Kazan) is a traditional Greek woman doing what all Greek women should do: marry and have children.
Gus and Maria have a successful Greek restaurant, Dancing Zorba's, which has Toula working there too. Her older sister Athena (Stavroula Logothettis) has already fulfilled her Greek duties, while their younger brother Nick (Louis Mandylor) is still playing the field. Toula is the ugly duckling of the extended Portokalos family: 30, unmarried and looking like a schlub.
Into Dancing Zorba's one night comes Ian Miller (John Corbett). He may look like a Greek god, but he is clearly not Greek. No matter, Toula falls head over heels for him. More surprising for Toula, he is enraptured by our Mediterranean bombshell. Her newfound romance inspires her to take college courses, and she thanks to Maria and her Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin) wheedles her way to work at Voula's travel agency. Eventually, her illicit romance is discovered, horrifying the others in the Portokalos clan.
Eventually, they surrender to reality, and opt to bridge the culture gap. Ian goes along with almost everything thrown at him, be it saying idiotic things in Greek thanks to Nick and his cousin Angelo (Joey Fatone) or getting baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. The only thing he won't do is change his vegetarianism, which appalls the family but which again, they accept as a mere eccentricity on Ian's part. At the end, Ian Miller and Toula Portokalos marry, and Gus realizes that Miller is a Greek word meaning "apple". As Portokalos means "orange", we have a mix of apples and oranges, fully aware that at the end, we are all fruit.
Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm over My Big Fat Greek Wedding is due to the fact that I too am part of a large extended family. As such, having such a family is not surprising or unique, which I think is what sold My Big Fat Greek Wedding to general audiences.
Take the issue of the first cousins. When she tells Ian that she has 27 first cousins, I first thought my mere 17 first cousins could not compete. However, she does not clarify if it was 27 first cousins on one side or 27 first cousins overall. If she means on only one side, then she's got me beat. If she means overall, then my Mexican family overtakes her Greek family because those 17 first cousins are just on my mother's side.
I figure that Vardalos was aiming to show the humor in the culture clash between the very WASP Miller family and the outrageously ethnic Portokalos family. The end result, though, to my mind, is that Toula is deeply embarrassed by her family. To be fair, I can see why: they are loud, vulgar, and obnoxious. The massive Parthenon-inspired Portokalos home is almost arrogantly and defiantly built to stand out among the more traditional homes their neighbors have. That all the Portokalos family members seem oblivious to how they come across is, I figure, meant to be wacky.
It just never sat well with me though. What I saw was an immigrant success story. Gus and Maria came to America (in the film, Chicago, in real life, Canada) and built up a successful business that provided for their children. Toula's Aunt Voula (Maria's sister) similarly built with her husband not one but two successful businesses (travel agency and dry cleaner). Yes, their love for Greece and all things Greek was borderline psychotic, but on the whole they were good, hardworking people. As such, Toula seems to have if not contempt for her boisterous family, at least deep shame. She does not have to be as insanely enthusiastic about all things Hellenic, but she also does not have to chuck her heritage to acquire some WASP exterior that she apparently aspires for.
I also never figured why Gus in particular was so appalled and opposed to this xeno swinging into his family tree.
As a side note, xenophobia is rooted in Greek, but that was never brought up.
Given how Toula was essentially an old maid, something that the family seemed almost obsessive in bringing up, I would figure the Portokalos family would be thrilled that someone finally took an interest in this schlubby woman. Any port in a storm is not something that they considered. Gus came across as monstrously sexist, at one point bemoaning "Didn't I say it was a mistake to educate women?". That he expects a grown man like Ian to ask him for permission to date his 30-year-old daughter is really bizarre. Again, had I been Gus, I would have perhaps been displeased that my Greek daughter was going out with a non-Greek man, but at least she will be providing grandchildren. Gus' sexism lets him ignore how Nick is similarly unmarried with no apparent desire to do so. Gus also ignores Nick's constant pleas to create new menus with his art. Somehow, Gus comes across as a very unpleasant and ignorant man. Why would Toula taking community college courses equal her "leaving him"?
Perhaps this is why almost everyone in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is so broad. The Portokalos family were a mix of cliches and parodies, with few moments of sense or sensibility. The only one who did not go broad and cartoonish was Corbett. He was the opposite: forever calm, almost stupefied, by how often Ian was the butt of jokes. He doesn't even appear too bothered that the wedding invitations that Maria got for them have his mother Harriet's name spelled as "Harry". I figure that is meant to be hilarious. I didn't find it so.
Ian is a high school teacher, the cool type who has a satchel bag and has a calm class. He says he teaches Hamlet, but he also teaches science, making me wonder exactly how strapped the school is if it needs teachers to teach various subjects. Yet I digress.
I cannot go much into the acting because like I said, the characters are almost all one-note, usually dialing up the volume to 11. I did think well of Gia Carides as Cousin Nikki. Yes, she is vulgar and openly sexual, but she could also rattle off clever quips. "Hello, Mr. Pottery Class," she greets Ian with, having fun with the excuse Toula has been using to date Ian on the down low. Andrea Martin's Thia Voula is also humorous in her wily ways. Unlike everyone else, her cluelessness is more amusing than idiotic. When Ian tells her he does not eat meat, she is at first appalled. "What do you mean you don't eat meat?", she says, shocking every Portokalos this side of Athens. After a beat, she pulls herself together. "It's OK," she calmly says. "I make lamb".
As a side note, the Greek words for Aunt and Uncle, Thia and Thio, are surprisingly similar to the Spanish words for Aunt and Uncle: Tia and Tio. Maybe Gus really is not far off.
It is not, however, that My Big Fat Greek Wedding does not have some nice moments. There is a beautiful moment late in the film when Toula's Greek grandmother silently presents her with her old wedding crown from the old country to Toula. That, I figure, is a theme of the film: the importance of family, continuity and tradition, those elements that tie us together to our past and build our future.
Maria advises her daughter that she must not take Gus' rejection of Ian so seriously. Man may be the head, but women are the neck, she tells Toula, making clear that women can make men see things the right way. In retrospect, while Kazan too had the broadness that ran through the whole film, she too had moments of genuine wisdom.
Ultimately, I was after two or now maybe three viewings of My Big Fat Greek Wedding still not won over by it. I've endured too many Big Fat Mexican Weddings to be impressed. Still, it is not without some charm and amid the spitting on the bride for good luck and confusion over what exactly a Bundt cake is, it is serviceable souvlaki of silliness.
"I don't know anything about you except you're Greek," Ian tells Toula early in their relationship. Given that being Greek is her sole defining characteristic, what else is there for him to know?