In 2002, Nia Vardalos’ My Big Fat Greek Wedding was The Little Film That Could, an ethnically specific romantic comedy that mainstream audiences discovered and celebrated as their own. It played in theaters for a full year, en route to a $240 million domestic gross and a cumulative $370 million box office haul. The question surrounding Vardalos’ latest film, then, the Greece-set My Life in Ruins, is whether one can ever really go home again. The answer, it turns out, is kind of, but not really.
A mostly hired gun here (though she does rate a producer credit), Vardalos stars as Georgia, a thirtysomething singleton who’s lost her job as a history professor and works in disgruntled fashion as a travel guide at Pangloss Tours in Athens. On the precipice of considering another life change, she struggles leading around a motley crew of tourists (a group that includes Richard Dreyfuss, Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch), trying to show them the beauty of her native country even as they seem more concerned with air conditioning, ice cream and shopping time. Worn down by their disinterest and a rival colleague out to show her up, Georgia eventually begins to let go and see things in new ways. After some mistaken identity shenanigans involving a secret admirer, the lovelorn Georgia even comes around to the possibility of a relationship with carefree, crush-worthy bus driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis, above right), whose mullet magically becomes acceptable once he simply shaves.
Written by Mike Reiss, a scribe on The Simpsons, and directed by Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality), My Life in Ruins is a relatively sweet and well-meaning film nonetheless done in by its own wild unevenness and over-the-top characterizations. A mirthless opening 15 or 20 minutes, full of painfully telegraphed shtick, finally gives way to some passably funny if very small moments, including a mispronunciation of the word “stick” and Dratch coining the collapsed slang “sh-load.” Vardalos, too, has a certain unvarnished charm, particularly in a few scenes with Dreyfus, that remind you of her breakthrough role.
Still, the film doesn’t arrive at most of its emotional moments honestly. There’s lots of talk about “kefi” (Greek for passion, spirit or mojo), and certainly enough beautiful scenery to root the movie as an exotic travelogue bauble, but Vardalos’ character isn’t strongly sketched enough to make it all work as a sort of How Georgia Got Her Groove Back. The supporting characters, meanwhile, are by turns so wacky, rude, sullen or spiritedly helpful (whatever the moment’s situation dictates) as to become wearying. Essentially, My Life in Ruins is just a series of moments aping other film moments we’ve all seen before. That it tries to piggyback so blatantly on the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding of course isn’t surprising, but it certainly proves that cinematic leftovers don’t always keep well. (Fox Searchlight, PG-13, 96 minutes)