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[whitespace] Orthodox Comedy

There are lots of movies like 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'--but this one has Andrea Martin in it

By Richard von Busack

ONE OF THE longest-running Broadway hits of the 1920s was a play called Abie's Irish Rose, all about an Irish girl marrying a Jewish boy. Much outrage and gesticulation ensued before the families make their peace, as they must.

Robert Benchley, who loathed the play, was the drama critic for the humor magazine Life (not to be confused with Henry Luce's photo-mag). Weekly, he wrote up blurbs for the play, desperately trying to find something new to say about it: "America's favorite comedy. God forbid." When it closed, he wrote, "There is a play by another name supposed to be at this theater now, but you can't fool us. We know what it really is."

My Big Fat Greek Wedding rarely travels out of its well-worn rut carved for it 80 years ago: on the one hand, your immigrant culture drives you crazy, but on the bright side, you can inflict it on your kids. The jokes in My Big Fat Greek Wedding come right where you'd expect, and some of them even detonate. An indie film on the surface, it's co-produced by Mr. and Mrs. Tom Hanks and has no more edge or density than a soap bubble.

Joel Zwick, who directed, brings all of the flavor of a sitcom, and there are dead zones aplenty. During them, you can amuse yourself with recollections of David Sedaris' far-more-ruthless spitting and roasting of his Greek relatives in his essay collection Barrel Fever. Sample: "The Greeks invented democracy and then called it a day."

Nia Vardalos plays Toula, a drab Chicago girl working at her parents' restaurant. She's under the thumb of her mother (Lanie Kazan) and traditional father (Michael Constantine, a hale-looking ex-TV actor who used to beguile audiences as the fatherly principal at Room 222) When Toula jettisons her thick glasses, pulls her hair back and gets out of those thrift-shop sweaters, she's pretty; and it isn't too long until she lands a desirable man: a high school teacher played by John Corbett from Northern Exposure.

Though Vardalos based this film on her one-woman play, she's an uncertain presence. I know from my readers how much it means to have a dark, big-boned woman as a love object on screen, as opposed to the common blonde string beans. Still, Vardalos makes more of an impression in the sadder parts of the show, and her real forte may be tragic roles.

What's most noteworthy here is a Greek, or rather, Armenian, goddess in the cast. She plays Aunt Voula, a chic matron with a Susan Sontag-style skunk stripe in her black hair. She's a well-kept and coifed woman with no sense whatsoever of the seemliness of things.

To paraphrase writer Janet Malcolm, if you mention Andrea Martin to some people, they'll make a face as if a kitten had just entered the room. History is not made by famous names, and that goes double for the history of entertainment. If, during the years, I've obsessed over figures like Eugene Pallette, Edward Everett Horton, Teri Garr or Martin's old colleague from SCTV John Candy, it's because these actors get stinted in favor of movie stars.

Martin floats through My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but the good news is that, comparatively speaking, you get 20 minutes of her. The film earns a thrill of brilliance when she appears. Martin's Voula has that Transylvanian certainty that the world is a melodrama and that it's up to her to pull back the curtain.

Her big scene, for all of its windup, is a minute long. The caricatured country-club WASP in-laws, queasy to the point of vomiting from all the Greek food and energy around them, are shrinking in a corner. Voula decides to defrost them by pouring a vat of ouzo in them and then giving them an unspeakably graphic description of her medical condition. Martin's inflection on a phrase like "Woe is me" is better than anything else in this film. Is it that the likes of Martin are too wonderful to carry the length of a movie? Perhaps that's just one of those comforting lies we tell ourselves when we get robbed.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (PG), directed by Joel Zwick, written by Nia Vardalos, photographed by Jeff Jur and starring Vardalos, Andrea Martin and Lanie Kazan, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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Web extra to the April 18-24, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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