Ethnicity in American movies tends to come in four flavors: black, Italian, Jewish, and Latino. What makes My Big Fat Greek Wedding stand out from the rest is that it is sautéed in retsina. Most of its characters are defined entirely by the fact th at they are first- and second-generation Greek Americans. Yet the alpha and omega of this amiable romantic comedy is that all unassimilated families are unassimilated in the same ways. You don't have to be Greek to be proud, obsessive, and loud. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of immigrant parents must be in want of a husband from the same background.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding originated as a one-woman stage show in which Nia Vardalos examined her own life, from childhood to marriage, in multiethnic Winnipeg. In the screenplay that she wrote, Winnipeg was transformed into Chicago. In the film that Joel Zwick directed from it, Vardalos plays Toula Portokalos, her fictional alter ego, and Toronto portrays Chicago, a city with plenty of Greeks but fewer Canadians than either Toronto or Winnipeg.
"You better get married soon. You're starting to look old" are the first words that greet us and 30-year-old Toula as she helps her father, Gus (Constantine), open the family restaurant, Dancing Zorba's, at 5 a.m. Bespectacled and bedraggled, Toula is starting to look like a spinster drudge. Before long, though, Cinderella is transformed by Prince Charming — a handsome, winsome high school teacher who happens to wander into the Portokalos restaurant. Toula and the stranger become smitten with each other, and the only obstacle to their romance is the fact that Ian Miller (Corbett) is not Greek. "There are two kinds of people," proclaims Gus, "Greek and everybody else who wishes they were." Ian indeed wishes he were Greek, because Gus refuses to allow him to court his daughter. Of all the 28 first cousins in Toula's extensive extended family, she is the first to date a non-Greek. Though he is continually pointing out how much English vocabulary is indebted to Greek, Gus does not comment on the word "xenophobe."
It comes as no surprise that, eventually, exogamy triumphs, though the bridegroom, who undergoes an Orthodox baptism, ends up becoming Greek in everything but name — Miller, which Gus insists is derived from the Hellenic root for "apple." Since Portokalos comes from the word for "orange," the union of Ian and Toula is a matter of apples and oranges, which makes a tasty macedoine. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the story of how Toula both defied and confirmed her tribal expectations. But it is not this ordinary story as much as the details that keep a viewer chuckling.
When Toula, raised in a crowded, raucous household, visits Ian's reticent, restrained parents, it is as much of a culture clash as when Alvy Singer, the neurotic New York Jew, visited Annie Hall's Gentile clan in Wisconsin. Toula's high-strung father cannot understand the understated Millers — "That family is like a piece of toast," he complains, and toast is much too bland for a Greek pantry. To the Portokaloses, identity is in the kitchen, and all of its contents must be Greek. You know that Toula is beginning to betray her heritage when her second date with Ian is at an Italian restaurant. Aunt Voula (Martin) is shocked to learn that her niece's fiance is a vegetarian but still determined to cook a meal for him. "What you mean he don't eat meat?" she asks. "I make lamb then."
Ian is himself a bit of a lamb in man's clothing, a desperate woman's fantasy of a totally compliant mate. If the Portokaloses are Levantine caricatures (Toula's fearsome grandmother, clad all in black, is forever wandering off into the neighborhood searching for Turks), too Greek to be true, Ian offers no resistance to their demands on him. He ends up being as Greek as Socrates and as much of a martyr. If, as Gus pretends, mathematics is an Hellenic invention, Ian is the cipher that the Greeks manipulate for their own equations. Six-year-old Toula is teased for bringing moussaka to school for lunch. But an outsider can easily learn to love a country where the handsomest Americans want to be Greek.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
"Sweet Greek comedy, not Aristophanes"
Dir. Joel Zwick; writ. Nia Vardalos; feat. Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Joey Fatone (PG)