The surprise success of the indie romantic comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was one of those rare movie occurrences no one could have designed or predicted. Which is precisely why Nia Vardalos’ latest toplining effort, “My Life in Ruins,” is doomed from the start: In attempting to replicate “Wedding’s” appeal and recycle a number of now-familiar elements, the new pic — about an embittered Greek-American tour guide’s search for love and happiness — feels like warmed-over souvlaki. Some fans of the original may line up for seconds, but this comedy will hold a decidedly more modest allure.
Lacking marquee names and a high-concept hook, 2002’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which Vardalos scripted and starred in, was vastly more successful ($356 million worldwide) than it had any reason to be. Fans — largely femme and older filmgoers — were charmed by its universal themes, broad humor and Vardalos’ vanity-free performance as ethnic Everywoman Toula Portokalos. In “My Life in Ruins,” her first bigscreen outing since 2004’s “Connie and Carla,” Vardalos plays Georgia, a single Athens-based tour guide who’s lost her “kefi” (zest or mojo).
But from the moment Vardalos struts onscreen in her 2½-inch wedges, thigh-baring skirts and honey-toned Sarah Palin coiffure, it’s clear she’s undergone a major transformation: Gone are the endearing clumsiness, simple frocks, untamed hair and, from the looks of it, at least 20 pounds. Nevertheless, like Toula, Georgia works at a travel agency, engages with a cast of colorful characters and eventually falls for a tall, sensitive guy with long hair.
That would be tour bus driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis), whose entrance under a thicket-like beard elicits uninspired Sasquatch comparisons. Beginning yet another extended tour through Greece, would-be classics professor Georgia finds herself relegated to a dilapidated bus filled with every conceivable tourist stereotype.
While her rival, snarky tour guide Niko (Alistair McGowan), gets an air-conditioned coach filled with polite Canadians, Georgia gets an overheated jalopy that includes boozing Australians (Simon Gleeson, Natalie O’Donnell); obnoxious Americans (Rachel Dratch, Harland Williams); sultry Spanish divorcees (Maria Botto, Maria Adanez); kooky seniors (Ralph Nossek, Bernice Stegers) and a Jewish widower (Richard Dreyfuss) with a penchant for Borscht Belt comedy. Among others. Only Dreyfuss manages to develop his role into a dimensional, compassionate character.
Over the course of a week that sees Georgia leading them all through the resplendent ruins of Athens, Olympia and Delphi, this improbable group will endure ugly squabbles, bruising misunderstandings and brushes with disaster, and eventually transcend them all to become a United Nations of peace, love and understanding. Cue the music.
It’s not that this premise is so altogether improbable — what tourist hasn’t bonded with strangers while sharing close quarters in a foreign land? — but that it feels tired from the start. The wincingly broad jokes and recycled situational humor (the script was penned by TV scribe Mike Reiss, rather than Vardalos herself) are given lackluster direction by Donald Petrie, and no amount of glorious Greek scenery can make auds forget this is a tour they should have skipped.
It’s worth noting, though, that Greece has rarely looked so good, and it’s a probable measure of Vardalos’ near-iconic status in her motherland that the production was able to shoot so freely in generally restricted locations such as the Acropolis and the Temple of Delphi.