by Lee Purvey
Arriving after a decade of romantic comedies that stuck to the cleanly binary logic of late-20th century courtship, My Big Fat Greek Wedding stood out, in 2002, as a love story that embraced the ensemble sprawl of the family comedy. The film retained that basic structure of the rom-com: introducing two attractive and temperamentally inoffensive lovers -- Toula (Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the film) and Ian (John Corbett) -- whose union is gently forestalled for about 90 minutes, then cheerily consummated. But while My Big Fat Greek Wedding didn’t break any new ground in terms of tone, in its central conflict, the film found a pleasantly messy and surprisingly substantive subject: the demands of Toula’s Greek immigrant family, whose old-world sexual politics and utter lack of boundaries create a comical set of hurdles between the young couple and the altar.
Director: Kirk Jones
Producers: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson
Writer: Nia Vardalos
Cinematographer: Jim Denault
Editor: Markus Czyzewski
Music: Christopher Lennertz
Cast: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Gia Carides, Joey Fatone, Elena Kampouris, Alex Wolff
US Theatrical Release: March 25, 2016
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
“Here tonight we have apple and orange,” declared Toula’s charmingly cantankerous father Gus (Michael Constantine) after the titular vows. “We all different. But, in the end, we all fruit.” My Big Fat Greek Wedding successfully introduced ethnic identity politics into the eroto-romantic mainstream and was an easy film to get behind. Despite its small budget and lack of star leads, it was a surprise smash at the box office and even garnered an Oscar nomination for Vardalos’ screenplay.
A decade and a half later, not much has changed in the world of big fat Greek matrimony. Toula still works at the family restaurant, juggling her duties there with a -- perhaps overzealous -- commitment to her teenaged daughter, Paris (Elena Kampouris). Toula’s fluster and puppyish need to please are still present, though their source is no longer the bachelorette insecurity of the first film but, rather, the helpless neurosis of an aging parent. And now her daughter’s life threatens to play out the same narrative. In addition to a set of distinctly Grecian pressures -- to wed and multiply -- Paris, a senior in high school, must also make a decision to stay or go for college. Vardalos’ script is surprisingly frank as to her parents’ thoughts on this matter: Toula and Ian want Paris to stay close, for reasons that are both obvious and thoroughly unexplored. Paris’ blacksheep identifiers -- plastic choker, eye shadow -- may have had some real world referent back in the early ‘90s, but in 2016 they’re just another of the many cliches that populate this unimaginative sequel.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (directed by Kirk Jones) plants the seed of love in the new generation, as Paris moons after a beautiful -- and totally dimensionless -- classmate named Bennett (Alex Wolff), whom she’d like to accompany to the senior prom. But -- in a basically dumb plot twist -- the bigger, fatter Greek wedding promised by the title does not involve Toula’s child, but instead her parents: while rooting through family documents, Gus discovers that his and Toula’s mother Maria’s (Lainie Kazan) marriage certificate was never formally signed by a priest and is thus (apparently) legally meaningless. The inevitable proceedings provide another opening for an outpouring of the Portokalos clan’s dysfunction and love, as most of the film’s gags hark back to the original with a torrent of self-reference typically reserved for decades-spanning sci-fi and action franchises.
If you think the above summary sounds like a mess -- and believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of sub-plot and diversion -- you’re totally right. Multigenerational cycles of frustration and emotional repression are generally sparse on the kind of catharsis demanded by romantic comedy’s all-positive ethos. But My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’s biggest problem isn’t its inability to resolve its central conflict. It’s that, in the first film, it already has.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding originated as a one-woman theatre piece and Vardalos at times still displays traces of a natural knack for ham-ish physical comedy. While Kampouris’ Paris is a tough sell, the supporting cast is generally game, though only Andrea Martin -- who returns in the serviceably campy role of Toula’s eccentric and sexually adventurous aunt, Voula -- is able to wring laughs out of Vardalos’ tepid screenplay, which remains desperately wedded to the original. Seemingly more interested in cultivating meaningless intertextualities with its progenitor than developing anything new, Vardalos and Jones’ new film feels less like a victory lap than a cash-grab reunion.