Surprise summer hits aren't supposed to come from the wonderful
world of "art films," normally dominated by avatars of the unconventional,
and therefore non-commercial. This summer, the art film community delivered
another kind of product, and the results have been nothing short of
spectacular. For weeks now, the average moviegoer has gone around the studio
system, gone around the movie critics and just plain gone to see "My Big Fat
Greek Wedding," the sensation written by and starring Greek actress Nia
There's no overt sex in this movie. No violence. Maybe I'm
wrong, but I don't recall a single curse word. It's a love story about two
normal people trying to build a normal life in the uncomfortable clash of
generations and ethnic traditions. Sounds pretty dull, doesn't it? In fact
it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. Ten minutes after it was
over, standing in the parking lot, I still couldn't stop laughing. It is
The "Greek Wedding" phenomenon started small, mostly in
art-house theatres. The audiences were typically meager, but that would soon
change as word-of-mouth, the movie's only advertising, spread. After a few
weeks, the per-screen averages were skyrocketing (my theater was packed) and
caught the attention of other exhibitors in the large venues.
How big of a hit is it now? Astonishingly, the movie has stayed
stubbornly second in the national box-office race, four and five months
after its release, an unheard of sensation in the summertime when
blockbusters swing for the grand slam on the first weekend and fall away
What a wonderful success story this movie is, too. Ms. Vardalos
had a one-woman show in Chicago recounting her travails in marrying a
non-Greek man. It was seen by actress Rita Wilson (part Greek), who
persuaded her husband, Tom Hanks, to put a film version together. The script
was purchased for $500; after the film concept was rejected by numerous
major studios, it was produced independently, for a mere $5 million. The
rest is history -- over $110 million in box-office revenue, and counting.
If conventional rules apply, "Greek Wedding" is not going to
take home the Oscar; some snooty critics have had a heyday trashing this
film. They believe that for the purposes of entertainment, the portrayal of
the Portokalos clan is a little over the top; they think that the filmmakers
should have had enough sense of their social surroundings to avoid painting
the Greek flag on the garage door, or forego roasting whole lambs on a spit
in the front yard. These naysayers feel the characters' behavior sometimes
treads heavily on the generically ethnic stereotype -- loud, huggy and heavy
on the booze. They think some actors are more credible than others, that
N'Sync boy Joey Fatone is a walking cartoon, that Lainie Kazan seems nice,
but she's captured just about every European-ethnic mother role by now. The
non-Greek in-laws are also problematic, a thinly drawn stereotype of
white-bread country-clubbers who seem to like only the fustiest classical
music and are so cold they can't assemble more than 12 people for their side
of the wedding.
Those fussy critics who think this way should be asked to
explain why audiences are roaring with laughter from beginning to end.
The irony is that amidst all the slapstick hyperbole in the
movie, there is the underlying feeling of authenticity. "Greek Wedding"
oozes familial love; one appreciates the heavy responsibility parents feel
to pass on a legacy, a culture to their children, to not let it be
overwhelmed by popular culture and here-today, gone-tomorrow faddishness.
The wedding can't unfold comfortably until the non-Greek suitor agrees to
become baptized into the Orthodox faith. But the Greek father and mother
must also relent when they remember they left Greece for America so that
their children could live a life of their own choosing.
What's chosen is uniquely American -- that melting-pot lifestyle
where old traditions lovingly linger alongside a welcoming heart toward good
people with different upbringings. Assimilation isn't total cultural
surrender. It's a blending of true tolerance and tradition, a recipe for
social norms and social peace.
Surely, a movie about a wedding screams the words "chick flick"
to husbands and mucho-macho dates. Not so. Oh, you'll cry all right -- but
that's just how hard you'll be laughing. If you've not yet seen "My Big Fat
Greek Wedding" -- go. It is Hollywood entertainment at its finest.
And Hollywood, it screams for your Oscar.