It's well known that Greeks are ethnocentric. Most of their men will probably brag within the first five minutes of being introduced that they are Greek -- as if you couldn't already tell from the greased hair, thick sideburns, leather jacket, cross around the neck, shirt wide open flaunting chest hair, and oversized gold ring with the Greek key. Greek women can also be easily recognized because they usually travel in packs, so if you meet Voula, Margarita, Thalia, and Zoe in the grocery store buying lamb shanks and phyllo dough, you can pretty much bet they're Greek. With such a strong presence from a proud people, it's a rare treat when a film comes along that satirizes such a unique and passionate culture.
Chicago, which is the setting for director Joel Zwick's My Big Fat Greek Wedding, seems to be a veritable Athens in America. While most urban "Greek Towns" are a dying breed, downtown Chicago is thriving with Greek diners, clubs, and cafes. The story begins at The Dancing Zorba, a diner owned by the Portokalos family. Toula (Nia Vardalos) starts out as a depressed and portly thirty year-old that works as a hostess for her parents. Trapped at the restaurant by her stubborn Greek father (Michael Constantine), who believes that a woman's role in the world is to breed Greek children and cook, her life changes when she becomes smitten with the non-Greek Ian Miller (John Corbett). She decides that she needs to go to school, lose the tacky glasses, and put on a little makeup in order to take control of her life. With the blessing of her mother (Lainie Kazan), Toula transforms herself into an attractive and brazen woman worthy of Ian's interest. But how can she convince her family that Ian is right for her? Her father considers any non-Greek a "xenos," a foreigner, and worse, Ian is a longhaired vegetarian.
The light-hearted humor spares no anomaly of Greek-American culture. Inevitably, what most moviegoers will assume to be exaggerations just to get a laugh are actually true in many Greek homes, including mine. From the living room couch with the clear plastic covering to the statue of Hermes on the front lawn to the fighting amongst the men about who gets to eat the lamb's brain.
Vardalos plays the part as if she actually lived through the chaos herself, and Michael Constantine reminds me of my own grandfather, who once chastised me for criticizing the potholed and worn roads in Greece. A proud Greek man is always adamant about the perfection of his home country. Kazan's accent slips and sounds Russian at times, but only a trained ear will notice the flaws; otherwise her performance as an overly loving mother is endearing. *Nsync's Joey Fatone, although he's not really Greek, actually looks the part as cousin Angelo and even has a chance to show off his moves as he flails through the Greek dance known as the Syrto.
Also written by Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding began as a play, and she attempted to turn it into a sitcom before catching the attention of producers Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who went through a big fat Greek wedding of their own. [After its wild success, it is now becoming a sitcom for real... -Ed.] Supposedly, other producers wanted to change it into a big fat Mexican or Jewish wedding, but the story would have been completely different. Cut from a similar mold as Moonstruck, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a touching love story reaffirming the notion that in the Greek culture a marriage is never just between the husband and the wife but is a bond of both families. In Toula's quest for fulfillment, she finds strength and pride in the good intentions of her family, but learns that she must be brave in order to break out of the mold. Her brother Nick (Louis Mandylor) sums it up best when he advises her, "The family will always be a big part of who you are, but don't let it limit who you become."
The DVD features an extensive commentary from Vardalos, with some chatting from John Corbett and producer Joel Zwick. Most of it has become common knowledge by now. I'd suggest enjoying the film as it stands and just read our interview with Vardalos instead.
My big hairdo.