My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the most successful romantic comedy of all time, but only if you measure success with silly metrics like “money.”
Despite grossing $368 million (off a $5 million budget!), the film left almost no impression on pop culture. Heralding writer and star Nia Vardalos as the Yakov Smirnoff of the Mediterranean, the box office juggernaut permeated the summer of 2002 like a heat wave that’s remembered only for the records that it broke. There are certainly rom-coms that have left a more significant legacy—in fact, there are tweets that have left a more significant legacy (e.g., that one in which Jaden Smith asked a rhetorical question about mirrors). It was a product of a different time—before video on demand and streaming complicated the indie film business—a time when distributors could plant a movie in theaters like it was a sapling and watch it sprout money for months on end. It was three years before Judd Apatow broke through to a mainstream audience and changed the tone of modern comedy to something a bit more self-aware, more pointed, and more disparaging in its path toward empathy.
And yet some things are timeless. The beauty of heritage is rooted in the fact that it never changes, and new generations tell the same old jokes about it in order to make sure of that. My Big Fat Greek Wedding struck a chord with audiences in part because it was so overtly attuned to the continuum of tradition, the universal difficulties inherent to the process of reconciling the sanctity of the old world with the instability of the new one. It was a comedy as sweet, thin, and forgettable as a Hallmark card—the kind of movie that felt like it had been made with a laugh track in mind (a suspicion confirmed by the fact that Vardalos promptly leveraged her success by adapting the megahit into a short-lived sitcom). It was the kind of movie that insists upon being written about in the past tense, because not a single person has watched it in the 14 years since it came out.
The first problem with My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (other than the fact that it doesn’t have a fun subtitle, e.g., My Big Fat Greek Wedding: The Reaping) is that it assumes that audiences took these eminently forgettable characters home with them. On the one hand, it repeats so many of the same jokes that it almost doesn’t matter. On the other, there are enough callbacks that it feels like Vardalos has presumed an intimate knowledge of the Portokalos family and all of their zany traditions.
A Greek chorus of aunts and uncles who seem to be able to appear whenever it’s comedically convenient, the rabble of Chicago immigrants is still up to all of their old tricks. Toula (Vardalos), a bookish everywoman whom we first met as the put-upon daughter of two oppressively Greek parents, is now paying it forward as she raises a daughter of her own. Ah, the circle of life. When she’s not volunteering at her kid’s high school, Toula can be found chauffeuring her aging father Gus (Michael Constantine) to his various medical appointments and bemoaning her sexless home life with her cosmically bland husband, Ian (John Corbett).
Gus and his long-suffering wife Maria (Lainie Kazan) are already pressuring Toula’s daughter to find a Greek husband. But then, an ironic twist! It turns out that Gus and Maria’s marriage license was never signed by a priest (oops), and so technically they’ve been living in sin for the last 50 years. Theirs is the “Big Fat Greek Wedding” of the title, or at least it will be if Gus can summon his long-dormant romantic side and prove to Maria that he truly wants to be with her—one of many cast members who are reprising the roles they originated in the first film, the 88-year-old Constantine does serious yeoman’s work as he carries the whole film on his sloped shoulders and on the strength of his puppy-dog eyes. It all leads to a reasonably charming sequence in which three generations of Portokalos women slow-dance with their respective paramours as John Legend(opoulos) croons over the soundtrack.
Yes, even Toula’s daughter gets in on the action. Inexplicably named Paris (Elena Kampouris), she’s a high-school senior who’s struggling to decide whether she should go to college at nearby Northwestern or leave her family for the exotic wilds of New York University. Her dilemma reaffirms that both of the My Big Fat Greek movies are ultimately about compromise, about the things that we must lose—or the traditions that we must loosen—in order to make our own peace with this life. Through being a daughter, Toula learns that marriage doesn’t have to mean the end of romance; through having a daughter, she learns that an empty nest doesn’t have to mean the end of parenthood.
These niceties might mean something if they weren’t so generic. In fact, for a film that promises to explore a very specific community (and then, as per the title, a specific tradition within that specific community), My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is broader than Donald Trump’s international policy. I’m sure there are knowing smiles of recognition that are reserved here for people raised in traditional Greek families, but it’s hard to feel like you’re missing any of the jokes when every punch line is practically written out on cue cards. Prioritizing access over insight, Vardalos writes jokes the same way that the New York Post writes horoscopes, and her movie should prove relatable to immigrants, their children, their grandchildren, anyone from a large family, anyone who has ever had parents, and anyone who has ever known a parent (not even necessarily his or her own). There’s a fine line between making a movie for everyone and making a movie for no one, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 drives a minivan right over it.
Perhaps that’s the point, that all American children of immigrant families feel as though they’re alone in their suffering, when in fact the idea that we all must endure slightly different shades of embarrassment is part of what holds this country together. And that’s a nice thought, but Vardalos sands away so many layers of specificity that her characters ultimately aren’t even people so much as they are fleshy punching bags. That approach ripples through the casting all over again: Andrea Martin (the saucy Aunt Voula) is still played by an actress whose Armenian grandparents moved to the U.S. from Turkey, but I guess everyone is Greek at the end of the day. The film’s transparent attempts to offset that imbalance are so clumsy and half-assed that you wish they wouldn’t have bothered: John Stamos (the artist formerly known on Full House as Jesse Katsopolis) is a spectacular waste of time as a handsome local newscaster whose son is a romantic prospect for Paris.
You wish they hadn’t bothered trying to update the jokes, either. Some business about teaching Gus how to use a computer so he can learn something on Ancestry.com (or its nonunion equivalent) is a C plot that never goes anywhere. At one point, Toula’s nephew complains that the word spanakopita was autocorrected to spina bifida on his homework. On the bright side, the Windex jokes are kept to a minimum.
It might seem inevitable that My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is such a shameless cash grab, but it’s hard to argue that the movie’s existence isn’t validated by its focus on the passing from one generation to the next. Here is a movie that encourages you to give it the benefit of the doubt at every possible turn but has no interest in offering anything in return. If you liked the original, you’ll like this one less. If you loathed the original, may God be with you. Opa!