Sunday, June 7, 2009

Her Big Fat Greek Travel Movie

My Life in Ruins

There’s an episode of The Larry Sanders Show in which Phil, the head writer, sells a pilot for a sitcom about an indie band in Seattle. By the time the producers finish with the script, it has become a vehicle for Dave Chappelle, and it’s about a hip-hop group in Detroit.

I thought about this when watching the new movie My Life in Ruins. Mike Reiss, a talented writer for The Simpsons, wrote the original screenplay, based on his travel experiences. Nia Vardalos, creator and star of the 2002 sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, got hold of the script and refashioned it as a vehicle for herself. The result, directed by Daniel Petrie (Miss Congeniality), is a pallid, warmed-over romantic comedy that tries to recapture Big Fat Greek’s magic, but without its humor or charm.

The formula is similar: Vardalos plays an introverted Greek-American woman dealing with the exasperating eccentricities of her compatriots while looking for love. Here she plays Georgia, a laid-off college professor working for a shoddy tour company in Greece. She’s their least popular tour guide, boring the travelers with history lectures when they’d rather be shopping for tacky souvenirs and eating ice cream. Georgia is, in the parlance of the 1970s and this movie, “uptight” — unable to loosen up and needing more sex, as pointed out by her long-haired, bearded bus driver (Alexis Geourgoulis), oh-so-hilariously named “Poupi.” You needn’t be psychic to know that by movie’s end, Georgia will let her hair down, and with whom.

The movie pokes mirthless fun at tourists (infantile vulgarians uninterested in culture) and the Greeks’ carefree “Zorba” temperament (when things go wrong, Georgia complains, “What do they do? They dance!”). Fortunately for Georgia, her motley group includes an elderly British kleptomaniac, two man-hungry Spanish divorcees, a workaholic iHop executive (pancake jokes = not funny), and a magical retiree played by Richard Dreyfuss, who helps Georgia find her kefi (spirit). But Vardalos’ character is remarkably bland and subdued, so her transformation and nascent romance hold little interest.

Producers Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson were granted rare access by the Greek government, so the movie offers rare views of the Acropolis, Delphi and Olympia. Its minor travelogue appeal, however, is diminished by the nattering silliness of Vardalos’ script. I wish I could have seen the movie Mike Reiss had in mind.

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