Eight years ago, I left a preview screening of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, turned to my friend Joshua Rothkopf, and said something to the effect of “How did that get made? What possible audience could a movie with no stars and no conflict possibly have?” Similarly, I left the preview screening of Avatar and said to Keith and Scott, “Holy shit. That is going to be one of the biggest flops of all time. It literally needs to make almost a billion dollars just to break even. And how many people are salivating for a three-hour, heavy-handed message movie with no big stars, explaining how space Native Americans are spiritually superior to us earthbound palefaces?” I was, perhaps, wrong in my estimation of the commercial chances of those particular films. My Big Fat Greek Wedding became the top-grossing independent film of all time, and Avatar the top-grossing studio film.
Wedding’s commercial appeal is obvious only in retrospect. Just about every ethnic group could look at the film’s loud, garish, but welcoming and big-hearted family and think, “Wow, they’re just like my big fat Jewish/Albanian/Italian/Mexican/[insert ethnic group here] family. We’re garish and a little crazy, but boy do we mean well! That could be us up there onscreen!”
And plenty of women could relate to writer-star Nia Vardalos. In a world of frighteningly skinny, eerily perfect Hollywood swans, she was a genuine ugly duckling, not just Hollywood’s conception of plain. She was relatable. She was sympathetic. She looked more like the families that flocked to her fluke blockbuster than the sex bombs that generally star in romantic comedies. In a culture that worships youth and fame, she achieved unlikely ubiquity as a nearly 40-year-old unknown then best known for logging time on the main stage of Second City.
And if My Big Fat Greek Wedding was ultimately a wish-fulfillment fantasy for dowdy middle-aged secretaries dreaming in the dark about scoring preposterously attractive men, then wasn’t it long overdue? We’ve seen enough movies about schlubby, unattractive, middle-aged men paired off with ostensible love interests so attractive and young, they don’t even appear to be part of the same species. Wasn’t it time the Jean Teasdales of the world got to live vicariously through a fairy-tale romance between a prince and a gawky everywoman?
My Big Fat Greek Wedding made Vardalos an unlikely star, and via the film’s nod for Best Adapted Screenplay, netted her one of the least-deserved Oscar nominations since Love Story and Airport squared off for Best Picture at the 1971 Academy Awards. (The competition? M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces, and Patton, the eventual winner.) But the question remained, was it the role, the movie, or the actress that the public embraced? What would she do for her second act? What could she do?
The answer, alas, was My Big Fat Greek Life, a short-lived TV series that redundantly adapted a glorified big-screen sitcom into a small-screen one. Vardalos’ next starring vehicle, the 2004 female-drag-queen buddy comedy Connie And Carla, flopped. Things looked so dire that the only work the woman behind an out-of-nowhere, $241 million hit movie could land involved giving lectures at the Learning Annex on how to make the least of undeserved fame.
Hollywood wouldn’t give her a chance to make another terrible, terrible movie, so Vardalos took the initiative and secured independent financing for her directorial debut, 2009’s I Hate Valentine’s Day. My editor Keith and his wife Stevie have renamed 2005’s Rumor Has It… as Everybody Fucks Costner. In that vein, I Hate Valentine’s Day is pretty much Everybody Wants To Fuck Vardalos.
The writer-director’s radically slimmed-down physique—she lost 40 pounds before filming—is the subject of the first line of dialogue. A big galoot on the street leers at her and enthuses, “I like your short skirt!” She wittily retorts, “I like your buns!” (’Cause he’s manning a pastry cart!) It’s all downhill from there.
The inhabitants of Vardalos’ cozy little Brooklyn neighborhood view her as a sentient ray of sunshine bringing joy and laughter to everyone’s life. She knows everything about everything, and even more intoxicatingly, she’s willing to share that knowledge! Yes, Vardalos is an expert on everything, but l’amour fou is her area of expertise.
Here, Vardalos shares some of her boundless knowledge on how men and women behave with her My Big Fat Greek Wedding co-star John Corbett, a handsome but socially retarded law-school graduate and entrepreneur, who of course cannot hold onto a girlfriend, and is constantly getting dumped. In the exposition-dump below, Corbett thoughtfully blurts out every relevant bit of information about himself, his life, and his romantic situation:
In a three-minute span, we learn that Corbett went to law school, then gave up a promising, lucrative law career because he found it spiritually unfulfilling; that he’s from Atlanta and has internalized its old-fashioned ideas about courtship and sex; that he’s in a relationship with a stewardess, but it isn’t going too well; that he’s opening a tapas restaurant; and that he has a deep, abiding love for terrible wordplay.
As a special bonus, one of Vardalos’ two sassy, wisecracking gay sidekicks, whom I like to think of as Miss Thing One and Miss Thing Two, cheerfully inform us that Corbett is the sort of strikingly handsome, kind, accomplished law-school graduate who has no idea he has anything to offer women. Tragically, this scene tells us nothing about the professions of Corbett’s grandparents, or his views on the flat tax. Other than that, it has the situation covered.
Corbett is instantly smitten. Actually, smitten isn’t a strong enough word to do justice to his sizzling attraction to Vardalos. He’s gobsmacked, blown away, in total disbelief that a woman who looks like Vardalos would give him the time of day. What Corbett doesn’t realize is that Vardalos is even nuttier than she appears. For she isn’t just an amateur philosopher and unlicensed loveologist, she’s also the creator of the five-date system. The rules are simple: She lets a hopelessly infatuated suitor woo her relentlessly for five magical dates, at which point they bid farewell forever. That way, Vardalos gets to live forever in the giddy rush of infatuation. She never knows anything but young, fresh love, with none of the restrictions and limitations that come with long-term romantic relationships.
The theme of each of those five dates:
Date one: Breathless flirting
Date two: Tummy flip-flops
Date three: The adventurous date (i.e. anal)
Date four: Be fun and fabulous
Date five: The best date ever, and then it’s time to move on
I like that she stipulates that on date four, you need to be fun and fabulous. During the other dates, you’re apparently supposed to be morose and passive-aggressive. If a woman follows this foolproof plan, Vardalos insists breathlessly, “He’ll only remember you with sweet, soft memories, and you will never be hurt again.” Maybe. It’s more likely that the suitor in question will remember the Five-Date System follower as that crazy broad who disappeared inexplicably just when things started to get interesting.
This raises questions. Vardalos says she’s in love with love, but hates commitment. Does that mean she fucks everyone she embarks on five dates with? Oh, if only there was a clip illustrating that Vardalos may be a commitment-phobic loon with an insane system, but she’s no harlot. Oh wait, there is. Here goes:
Wait, I’m not sure I understand this system yet. I wish there was another scene wherein Vardalos delineates the finer points of her system with the kind of moony expression found on people in straitjackets being chased by men with butterfly nets…
It’s remarkable that anyone takes Vardalos’ character seriously, let alone considers her a modern-day prophet, given her Charles Manson-level crazy vibe. Her lovestruck loon insists she’s always happy, and she never stops smiling that creepy smile of beatific contentment and all-consuming bliss you see on Hare Krishnas at the airport. She alternates between the sitcom sass of a robotic quip machine and a dreamy coo when she gets romantic. She’s clearly delusional and naïve, yet she speaks with absolute confidence and authority, as if her philosophy came straight from God. Since she lost all that weight, Vardalos’ head is now too big for her body, so her giant crazy eyes seem even more prominent.
Corbett is, of course, blown away. Though he don’t know nothing about courting no woman, Vardalos does double-duty as both his beloved object of desire and his date coach, telling him exactly how she wants to be wooed. Corbett is understandably intimidated. Yet he soldiers on all the same, even though Vardalos’ system means their thriving romance has a built-in expiration date.
In a shocking turn of events, Corbett and Vardalos fall hopelessly in love as Corbett showers his new flame with attention and gifts, including thigh-high lipstick-red hooker boots with a note reading, “In my fantasy, you’re wearing these with nothing but a smile.” Let that image marinate in your mind for a while—the unimaginable erotic ecstasy of Vardalos wearing nothing but hooker boots and that creepy pod-person grin of hers.
Vardalos isn’t merely supposed to be a raging beauty; she’s supposed to be beautiful on the inside as well, with a radiant, generous personality that makes her motley assortment of friends worship her. But she’s really a horrible, horrible human being: smug, unbearably arrogant, devoid of humility, and judgmental. At least she has a lazy excuse for her behavior: Her dad cheated on her mom, and she’s never been able to trust men as a result.
It isn’t until 76 minutes in that someone finally gets around to telling Vardalos that love is ultimately about companionship, respect, trust, emotional intimacy, a shared history, small moments of profound connection, building a life and family together, and a million other intangibles that have nothing to do with the giddy excitement of infatuation. Oh, and also hot, hot fucking. But mostly, love is about companionship, respect, trust, emotional intimacy, a shared history, small moments of profound connection, and building a life and family together.
Vardalos’ system is predicated on the belief that couples are inherently miserable and single people are always happy, especially if they’re immersed in the always-amazing, never soul-crushing or suicide-inducingly depressing world of dating. Who doesn’t love dating? Oh, that’s right: lots of people, who consider it, at best, a necessary evil. Many are in relationships specifically to flee a nightmare hellscape of bad first dates, agonizingly awkward conversations, and obsessive attempts to decode what tiny little gestures might mean.
Vardalos’ philosophy would be more palatable coming from the pouty lips of a younger actress like Scarlett Johansson or Jessica Biel. But casting a 46-year-old in the lead raises issues the film ignores. Vardalos has apparently been running her game for 25 years. In all that time, she never had a bad experience dating, or met a man who caused her to reexamine her system? Did she ever want to have children? Did she consider in vitro fertilization? Adoption? Unmarried motherhood? Valentine’s Day is queasily fuzzy where sex is concerned as well. It makes it clear that Vardalos is all about love rather than sex, but it can be a little difficult to separate the two.
I am guessing that most of you could give a mad-ass fuck about I Hate Valentine’s Day (or most of the films I write about here, for that matter) so I want to open this up and talk about the film’s bullshit dating-vs.-relationships dichotomy and ridiculously myopic, reductive take on the human mating dance. Is there anything to Vardalos’ system? Is there a method to her madness? Is it inherently delusional to want to live forever in the excitement of young love? I could see where the system might be fun for a while if you’re young, adventurous, and insanely attractive, but I can see it growing old and sad pretty fast. It’d take an incredible level of self-delusion to go decades without conceding to yourself that you need companionship, familiarity, and grown-up love, not just an endless succession of awesome dates to karaoke bars and art openings.
The public embraced Vardalos as a gawky underdog in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but in I Hate Valentine’s Day, she tests everyone’s patience and suspension of disbelief by playing a woman so utterly irresistible, men are willing to abandon conventional notions of love and romance just to be with her. In the end, her character doesn’t need Corbett to overcome his fear of singing—yet another contrived plot element—by climactically serenading her and professing his undying affection; she needs to grow the fuck up and get over herself.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success? Failure