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Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Indie ties knot with Hollywood

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Joel Zwick
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Far From Heaven

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Todd Haynes
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Greek. Hmm, no response. Let's try again: Greek! OK, there we go, a snicker. How about this? Greek, Greek, Greek! Big, fat Greek!

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Nia Vardalos and John Corbett in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"

Howling with laughter? Then "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is your kind of film. But if the idea of a flick that uses the word "Greek" as the punchline to every other scene leaves you cold, then America's runaway romantic-comedy hit of 2002 may not be your cup of ouzo.

"My Big, Fat Greek Wedding" is inevitably described as the little indie film that could -- a low-budget wonder that stomped the competition, opening in a mere 108 theaters across the vast United States, but spreading to 2,016 screens and an 18-week reign in the Top 10 chart.

"MBFGW" is a rare example (these days) of a film that succeeded largely on good word-of-mouth and not a multimillion-dollar advertising budget, but it's a bit of a stretch to call it an indie when you've got Tom Hanks as the producer.

Hanks signed on when his wife, Greek-American actress Rita Wilson, took a shine to the script by Nia Vardalos, who based her screenplay on the one-woman comedy show she'd been doing. But beyond the sense of shared ethnic identity, it's not hard to see why this was green-lighted: Aside from the one departure in casting an unknown, Vardalos, in the lead, "MBFGW" is a totally safe, predictable Hollywood-style rom-com in every other way.

Vardalos plays 30-year-old Toula Portokalos, a frumpy woman who works in her irascible father's restaurant -- called " Zorba's," no less -- and feels more than a little stifled by her family. Like many a second-generation child of immigrants, Toula just wants to chill and fit in and Americanize. Assimilation proves impossible, though, because her family is bent on continually asserting its ethnic roots. Her dad even sports Parthenon-style columns on the front of his suburban Chicago home, which strikes Toula more as "geekness" than "Greekness."

Upon spotting a hunky high-school teacher named Ian ("Sex In The City" 's boy-toy John Corbett), Toula decides to go for gold and, one makeover later, the ugly duckling has emerged as a swan with lipstick and contact lenses. Cue the parental freakout when they discover that Toula's fallen for a WASP instead of a "nice Greek boy."

Where the comedy goes from here isn't hard to imagine, with Ian trying so hard to Greek-ify himself that he even endures Toula's crazed, black-robed grandmother, a figure straight from Ethnic Stereotype Casting Central who's always going on about the Turks.

The humor derived from Greekness doesn't go much deeper than that -- moussaka, macho males and Mediterranean accents -- and one could easily imagine the same film with the same characters re-done with Hasidic garb, or perhaps saris. Indeed, the recent "Bend It Like Beckham" covered much of the same ground with a spikier wit.

One suspects reasons other than the bland ethnic comedy for the film's success. No doubt the presence of Nia Vardalos, with her cute but everygirl looks and a figure closer to that of an average American woman than, say, Cameron Diaz, won points with female viewers. In an age where geezers like Woody Allen and dweebs like Adam Sandler routinely get the supermodel-looking girl, it's about time the girl-next-door gets some payback, landing the boy-toy hunk.

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Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven"

Indie apes Hollywood in Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" as well, but in a totally different way. Haynes -- one of indiedom's most intriguing directors, with works like "Safe," "Velvet Goldmine," and "The Karen Carpenter Story" -- has taken his love of '50s melodramas, particularly the work of director Douglas Sirk ("All That Heaven Allows," etc.), and fashioned a retro-homage to films of the period, while outing the queer and racial themes that could only be hinted at in the originals.

Now, it's interesting to go back and look at films from this era through a pink lens, especially Rock Hudson's work, and see what they were hinting at. But to go ahead and essentially re-create a '50s film, in the cinematic vocabulary of the time, with modern sexuality and gender concerns forefronted, begs the question "why?"

Julianne Moore follows up "The Hours" by playing another repressed '50s housewife, Cathy Whitaker, who lives an upper-middle-class life in Hartford, Conn., complete with successful sarariman hubby Frank (Dennis Quaid) and two cherubic kids. Cathy's life is so white-bread and superficial she could be Beaver Cleaver's mom, and any depth to her personality only starts to emerge when she's forced by circumstance to change.

Cathy discovers that Frank's incipient alcoholism is due to repressed homosexuality -- she stumbles on him kissing another man when he's supposedly "working late at the office" -- and after wading through her own feelings of neglect and frustration, falls for their gentle gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Raymond, however, is black -- which makes Cathy's infidelity all the more damnable to the gossiping wives of conformist Hartford . . .

Haynes claims to be aiming for a powerful emotional impact, but the exaggerated archness and superficial style of '50s acting is emulated too well for that to work. It's hard to connect with chirpy dialogue like "Oh, jiminy!" or "Say, waddaya know! Pop's home!", or worse yet, the intrusive musical cues of Elmer Bernstein's retro score, hackneyed violins and piccolos that stomp all over every emotion. The film is sumptuously shot in rich autumn colors by Ed Lachman, but the deliberate artiness of the shots serves to distance the viewer even further.

The failure of Haynes' approach was evident when, in some of the film's most emotionally painful moments -- such as when Frank confesses his love of men -- much of the audience at one screening broke out laughing. "Far From Heaven" is so retro it's kitsch, and when Haynes seeks to tug at our hearts, it's impossible to get past the artifice of his style. Recommended for fans of the '50s "women's weepie," this one pales next to the direct, passionate expression of contemporary films like "The Hours" or "Frida." Both these films also included gay themes as a matter of course, as part of the larger story, and when cinema in general has reached such a point, one wonders whether the quasi-activist "Queer Cinema" of directors like Haynes is any longer necessary.

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