My Life In Ruins
Directed by Mark Romanek
Screenplay by Mike Reiss
The new film from Donald Petrie with a screenplay from Mike Reiss seeks to mine the vein of ethnicized romantic comedy that made My Big Fat Greek Wedding a tremendous surprise hit back in 2002. The connecting element here is Nia Vardalos, who stared in the Wedding film as she does in this one. What's missing is the edgy, slightly snarky writing - supplied by Vardalos in the original - that didn't pander to "rom-com" conventions, but let the characters (and a wild ensemble they were) carry the story.
As in so many films, it's primarily a screenplay problem. The performances are more than adequate for this kind of light comic fare. The production is well-funded and the crew have the resources and skills to produce a polished, visually-engaging piece of film. But the script skids into platitudes and clichˇs, not to skewer them, as the earlier film did, but with an uncomfortable level of something that is supposed to pass as sincerity.
The story concerns Greek-American thirty-something Georgia (Vardalos), an historian and former college teacher who has left her life in Chicago behind (although leaving a job application behind as well) to travel to Greece and get in touch with her ethnic roots. She has gotten a job as a tour-guide with a local tourist agency and shepherds mixed gangs of foreigners through some of the cultural and scenic highlights of the country. She is undervalued by her employer and outmaneuvered by her fellow-guide, the unctuous Nico (Alistair McGowan).
Her approach to the tours is dry and academic. She is in Greece, but is resisting becoming "of Greece." She has failed to find - as several of the Greek characters affirm - her "kefi," her spirit or soul. The movie seeks to tell the story of how she finds it.
It is a premise rich with possibilities, but screenwriter Reiss doesn't develop any of them. He's content with stock gags and "romantic" situations straight out of made-for-TV romance films. The dialogue is often stilted, the supporting characters written as background stereotypes rather than interesting individuals in their own right.
The secondary characters were a major element that gave texture and authenticity to MBFGW and that kind of insight is sadly missing here. The ensemble of supporting characters is an important element here too. They start off as an obstacle to Georgia's journey, bored by her historical lectures, more interested in souvenirs and ice cream than in the timeless Greek scenery or the roots of Western Civilization.
The dynamic that emerges as they come to understand and support Georgia, and she comes to understand and internalize their in-the-moment hedonism is supposed to be the driving force of the film, and it is, but Reiss has so layered it in stereotype and clichˇ that it staggers and lurches rather than dances.
And speaking of dancing, there are numerous references to the film Zorba The Greek - an intentional irony considering that Anthony Quinn, who played the archetypal Greek, was himself of Irish-Mexican extraction, and established as an American actor. But flirting with the stereotype, which was done with edgy, self-deprecating humor in MBFGW, fails here because of the shameless (commercially-driven) earnestness. This is a film that wants to be loved, needs to be loved, will try anything to be loved, and that obvious neediness becomes an embarrassment.
To give just one concrete example of how bad the worst of the writing is, the film spends a full minute or two on a gag about the tour-bus-driver's name being Kakas - a revelation that sends the tourist into hysterics (even a trio of Russians who presumably don't speak English) like a class of second graders. Then, to underline this brilliant sally of wit, it turns out his nickname is "Poupi," at which the Tourists presumably wet themselves.
To be fair, this probably the low-point in the film, but the fact that they left it in is a pretty good indication of how weak the writer's and director's concept of the film was.
The cast struggles with this material, but the material vanquishes them all in the end. Vardalos - substantially slimmed-down and glammed-up from her earlier role, doesn't quite know what to make of her new persona. In her old identity, she was free to poke fun at herself, her aspirations and her failures. Her vulnerability was a distinct part of her charm.
But as Georgia, she's too much of a winner to pull that off. She's glamorous, she's smart, she's successful at her real job - teaching - which she left of her own accord. It's hard to believe that someone with so much on the ball misses the obvious (and simplistic) conclusion that what she needs is more life in her life. The charm of the character she played in MBFGW lay in the trajectory of a self-defined "loser," whose coming to terms with - even embracing and making a success of - the realities of the actual life she was leading was a believable personal transformation.
As Stuart Klawans succinctly put it (and I've quoted here before): "obsession, hunger, the flaunting of despair, that's the stuff of comedy." Vardalos's script for MBFGW understood that and made good use of it. But the obviously attractive, and capable Georgia's discomfort is far too mild - and far too easily alleviated - to be really engaging.
Greek film star Alexis Georgoulis plays Georgia's "love interest." He's a good-looking "Greek God" of a guy, a fact which had the potential to be played for far more laughs than it is, if the writer hadn't been so serious about the "romantic" aspect of the film. There's a certain Fabio-like element of unintentional self-satire that could have been used far more effectively if the writer and director had allowed themselves to see the potential for humor in presenting his character Whether Georgoulis can act or not is never established, as he's not really required to do much of anything other than stand around looking pretty - in a bodice-ripper-cover-manly way.
Alistair McGowan has a couple of scene-stealing turns as the self-inflated, posturing Nico. McGowan captures a painfully funny mix of vanity and incompetence with a physical presence that is simultaneously smarmy and effete. Maria Ad‡nez plays Georgia's and Nico's boss with a sort of witty, world-weary cynicism reminiscent of Zsa-Zsa Gabor. Rachel Dratz plays another one of the annoying characters she made her stock-in-trade on Saturday Night Live, but she's given so little to do that only the annoying-ness comes through, and character is irritating rather than funny. An English actress named Sheila Bernette plays an eccentric, elderly tourist with a penchant for pilferage, in the delightful tradition of the Ealing comedies.
Richard Dreyfuss struggles against badly-written dialogue, and his own established penchant for maudlin scenery-chewing (remember Mr. Holland's Opus) with only limited success. Every time he seems about to establish himself as a genuine curmudgeon, with a vinegarish wit to offset the treacle around him, the script gives him a "moment" or a bit of back-story that takes the sharpness right out of him. He finds some moments that show flashes of what a fine actor he can be, but the script as a whole, and especially his bathetic final scenes, sucks the life out of his performance.
As I said above, the production values are fine, with a high level of professional polish. The film-makers made the Greek landscape one of the stars of the film, and the panoramas are truly beautiful, if somewhat disconnected from the story being told. The camera-work is undistinguished but workmanlike. The David Newman score, which includes a fair amount of (but possibly not enough) Greek popular music of the last 20 years, has good moments, but too often the "original" parts become manipulative and overbearing.
There seems to have been a split here, between Vardalos's original style of personal, quirky story-telling, with its edgy satire and self-deprecating humor and a more 'Hallmark Movie Channel" sensibility represented by Reiss's formulaic and predictable script and Petrie's serviceable but pedestrian direction. If there was such a struggle, the writer/director team won. But the triumph of their point of view as represented in the movie is not, sadly, a victory for viewers.
That's my take on it. What's yours?