Three Cheers for Greek Weddings

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 Vardalos.

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 comedic genius.

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 rapidly.

What a wonderful success story this movie is, too. Ms. Vardalos had a one-woman show in Chicago recounting her travails 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 alright - 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.