Translating Nia Vardalos’ well-received stage monologue into fleshed-out screen form, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” suffers in ways typical to such adaptations — what was fresh and flavorful in anecdotal description becomes more familiar and sitcom broad in literal depiction. Directed with a visually uninspired, workmanlike competency that doesn’t transcend helmer Joel Zwick’s TV roots (going all the way back to “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” episodes), indie pic — produced by Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, with Gary Goetzman — can’t count on stellar reviews to draw crossover audiences. Yet if the raucous response at one community-targeting preview screening is any measure, this genial comedy might achieve sleeper legs wherever there’s a concentrated population of Greek-heritage viewers.
Funny flashback segs under opening credits limn the formative experiences of Vardalo’s alter-ego, Toula Portokalos, a Chicagoan mortified from an early age by her over-the-top family’s boisterous, argumentative ways. The clan promotes exactly three values — “Marry a Greek boy, make Greek babies, feed everyone” — with parents Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan) so patriotically traditional that their house even looks like a suburban-scaled Parthenon.
Overshadowed by better-conforming sibs, misfit Toula works miserably at the family’s restaurant, resentful yet too timid to leave. One day, however, she’s stopped in her tracks by a customer, lanky hunk Ian (John Corbett from “Northern Exposure” and “Sex and the City”). Overnight, she resolves to shed her wallflower persona, undergo a makeover, enroll in community college and orchestrate an upward career shift to an aunt’s travel agency.
The new Toula duly attracts Ian’s attention — resulting in courtship and an eventual marriage proposal. However, his status as a non-Greek-American is reason enough for the family — dad in particular — to mount a certain horrified disapproval, at first. Raised by stereotypically vanilla, emotionally repressed parents (played as quailing WASP palefaces by Fiona Reid and Bruce Gray), Ian enjoys Toula’s ebullient relatives. But once he’s accepted, her embarrassments continue as the vast, endlessly meddling Portakalos brood takes control of what will be a fully Greek Orthodox no-expense-spared wedding, whether she likes it or not.
Once it’s set up, protag’s oh-my-gawd attitude toward a well-meaning but overbearing tribe brings no narrative surprises or quirky subplots. Instead, there’s just a routinely sentimental/slapstick march toward the altar, sans any real comic invention. The anarchic laughs of scattered moments (brother Nick’s slightly mean-spirited pranks, a grandmother’s senile paranoia) are kept all too peripheral, while central focus retains a sitcom-style glibness.
Second City troupe vet Vardalos doesn’t photograph well, and lacks the charisma of a natural movie lead. Her best moments lie in the earliest sequences’ smart voiceover wisecracks … which are unfortunately limited to the first reel. Supporting perfs are good but underutilized, with Kazan, Andrea Martin’s Aunt Voula, ‘N Sync’s Joey Fatone and “Strictly Ballroom” Aussie Gia Carides as loud-mouthed cousins all deserving more expansive screen time. Constantine fares best as a patriarch whose staunch traditionalism is at once dim-bulb and big-hearted.
Presentation is adequate but undistinguished, with OK production values granted little cinematic flair.