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[whitespace] 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'
Photograph by Sophie Giraud

Momma Knows Best: Young Toula (Nia Vardalos) at first revolts, then accepts the ways of her mother (Lanie Kazan) in 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding.'

Minority Reports?

Surprise indie hits 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' and 'Monsoon Wedding' sell submission as a form of rebellion

By Richard von Busack

ONE CLEAR PATH to success is to take an old-fashioned concept and disguise it as something rebellious. When humorist P.J. O'Rourke titled a book Republican Party Animal, he was foretelling the way to power: talk the same old talk but put some tattoos on it.

The most recent Jack in the Box ad campaign has the comic anti-mascot Jack acknowledging trouble in paradise: "Some say America is in a funk." What follows counteracts the company's usual entertaining anti-advertising campaigns. This Jack ushers in a cavalcade of macho. We see broncobusters and motorcycles and baseball players. They're rebels, defying the doctors, confounding those annoying authors of Fast Food Nation and insisting on our Yankee right to eat beef fat. At a certain point in space, anti-advertising gets so ironic that it hits a parabola and turns back into pro-advertising.

In the movies, we're used to rebel traditionalism. The alternative cinema is full of messages that declare, "It may be radical and unfashionable to say this, but I love heterosexuality, monogamy and traditional families."

That thin coating of rebellion on the old virtues provides some explanation for the success of both the good Monsoon Wedding and the mediocre My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The latter is an authentic independent hit. It ranked No. 13 in the national box-office tally last week and will certainly break the $20 million mark. Chump change, you say? Yes, but few independent movies make huge fortunes. As important as Y Tu Mamá También was, and as long as its run has been, it has only scored about $16 million.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is an easier sell than Y Tu Mamá También. It has hit a nerve with second-generation immigrants who see a reflection of their own struggles with the demands of an old-country culture. And because viewer's expectations are lowered by television, the film's notable flatness isn't a handicap. Director Joel Zwick has been making sitcoms since Laverne & Shirley, and he knows the drill. Moreover, there's no sex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding; you can take your immigrant grandmother to see it.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding, like Kissing Jessica Stein before it, takes the softest view of tradition. They merge in the mind, these two, with the big smart mommas in them--Tovah Feldshuh as the conservative Jewish mother in Stein, and Lanie Kazan in Greek. Both liven up their pictures, because they're just about the only real actors in these undercast indie movies. Their warmth takes the sting out of submission.

And Nia Vardalos' Toula, the heroine of Greek Wedding, submits nicely. While she doesn't marry a man chosen for her, she does marry in the church, makes her children take Greek lessons and moves in next door to her parents. All this, despite such a lack of chemistry between the leads that you'd wager the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding will be My Big Fat American Divorce.

Monsoon Wedding, which is up to $12 million nationwide, repays repeat viewings. It charms you with its vibrant colors, intoxicating music and costumes. How unfair--not only are Indians the best-looking people on earth, they also have the best clothes. But some portion of the film's appeal is that it satisfies viewers both for and against arranged marriages; the film's main plot goes along with the tested formula of slight rebellion against tradition before submitting to it.

You come out of Monsoon Wedding thinking, perhaps, under the unusual circumstances presented here, maybe arranged marriages aren't a bad idea. That's an example of the force of movies. Note how one well-turned, lovely film can overwhelm that principle of Western thought that it's an absolute right to choose to marry the one you want.

What a contrast My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Monsoon Weddings offer to the recent Israeli import Late Marriage, which depicts the vicious strain arranged marriages put on their children. What a contrast, too, to the way The Believer outlines the cost of tradition. In The Believer, Ryan Gosling's obsession with the story of Abraham and Isaac is telling--that Biblical legend says a lot about what a traditional culture demands from its fathers and sons, as well as its mothers and daughters.

Both Late Marriage and The Believer have blood in their veins--and ideas to mull over--and so critics have done an excellent job of chasing audiences away from them. So many reviews of The Believer say it's as powerful as a punch in the stomach. Who the hell wants to buy a ticket to get punched in the stomach? It's easier to go along with mild comedies that reinforce the staid old orthodoxies with a little touch of the unorthodox.


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From the July 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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