MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING
In the first 20 minutes of the romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there's a scene so simple it feels revelatory. Our heroine, Toula (Nia Vardalos), is a 30-year-old waitress in a diner owned by her Greek-with-a-vengeance parents, and has always been, as she describes herself, "a frump" - plain, bespectacled, overweight, and sadly single.
Yet after a handsome teacher named Ian (John Corbett) smiles at her in the restaurant one day, he sparks in Toula a desire to change her image; she gets contact lenses, snazzes up her wardrobe and appearance, starts attending college, and gets a job at a travel agency. Eventually, Toula lands a date with Ian, who doesn't recognize that she was once his waitress, and when he tells her about a terrific Greek place he wants to take her to - oh yes, it's her parents' diner - I felt a mild foreboding: Uh oh, I thought, what nutty scheme is Toula going to pull to distance herself from her eccentric Greek family, and how will she keep the cute WASP from realizing that she's still, at heart, a frump?
Instead, Toula admits that the diner Ian is describing is owned by her family, and says that she's the server he once smiled at; Ian, with slowly dawning realization, says, "I remember you," and the look on his face indicates that he didn't think of Toula as plain, but rather bewitching. And it was at this moment that I grinned and leaned back in my theatre seat absolutely content; My Big Fat Wedding had the perfect opportunity to engage in forced, sitcom-esque wackiness but was going to take the high road instead and treat these two characters as human beings, not stereotypes forced into clichéd plot machinations. After sitting through countless Hollywood romantic comedies in which couples are destined for each other yet find some inane reason to stay apart, it's a blessed relief to see two characters who meet, fall in love, and have the temerity to stay in love for length of the movie. It helps that Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the script (which was based on her one-woman show), and John Corbett share lovely chemistry, and both have a deft way of underplaying while still earning laughs and "Awwww..."s; in every scene of this charming little movie, they feel absolutely real.
A good thing, too, because they're surrounded by caricatures. The heart of the movie centers on how the Greek family deals with Toula planning to marry outside of her faith and heritage, and on the differences between the Greek and WASP worlds; this, in turn, leads to a lot of predictable jokes about how everyone in Toula's family is named either Nick or Nikki, and how Ian's tight-assed parents learn to cope with the "vulgarity" of this unrepressed clan. While the peerless Andrea Martin is hysterical as one of Toula's many aunts, the majority of the cast tries too hard to be amusingly ethnic - Michael Constantine, as Toula's father, stretches out his vowels to the point of snapping, and Toula's mother is so aggressively loving and bosomy that she's inevitably played by Lainie Kazan. Directed by Joel Zwick, the film doesn't have the sharpness of a Moonstruck, where all the actors played stereotypes with such outsized glory that it created a comic explosion; it's a soft, genteel work with overly loud supporting characters braying on the sidelines. But Vardalos and Corbett more than make up for the movie's weaknesses, there are nicely observed comic moments throughout the film, and it has true warmth. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a lightweight, wispy thing, yet for sheer charm and sweetness it easily stands as the romantic comedy of the year.
DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD
Let's keep this short and simple: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is as obnoxious as its title. Try as I may, I have never, ever gotten any pleasure out of the talky, Southern-fried, women's melodrama genre - which includes such staples as Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Where the Heart Is - and didn't expect to this time around. Yet amazing casts keep signing up for these things, so I keep giving them a shot. This latest round of injured parties includes Sandra Bullock, Ellen Burstyn, Ashley Judd, Maggie Smith, Fionnula Flanagan, and Shirley Knight, not to mention the token, ineffectual males played by James Garner and Angus MacFadyen, and whatever enjoyment I might get from some of the line readings - Smith's and Flanagan's, in particular - is trashed by the fact that the characters all have sickeningly cutesy names like Teensy and Necie, the plot features holes you could run a train through (A couple of questions for those who've seen the movie: How do you smuggle an unconscious woman on a plane? Where the hell are Ellen Burstyn's other kids? Where the hell is Sandra Bullock's accent?), and not one recognizably human emotion or event is displayed in over two hours of screen time. Enough. Those who are clamoring for films of this sort - like the women in the audience who applauded the opening title card that read "An All-Girl Production" - probably won't care about how staggeringly lame Divine Secrets is; those who go hoping that maybe this one won't suck will.
Undercover Brother is, quite simply, Austin Powers for the blaxploitation genre, and it's surprisingly not-terrible. I can't say I ever laughed during the movie - the gags are beyond obvious and director Malcolm D. Lee's pacing is off, like he's pausing for guffaws from a nonexistent studio audience - but it's certainly genial, and it has a few moments of inspiration. The "plot" concerns The Man - who, amusingly, is an actual man here - trying to turn blacks into neo-Caucasians through tainted fried chicken being served up by a respected, and now hypnotized, Army general (Billy Dee Williams, in a wicked Colin Powell send-up), and the only person who can save African-American existence as we know it is our hero, superspy Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin). Almost all of the film's funny bits are confined to that last sentence, and many of the performers - Chi McBride, Dave Chappelle, Chris Kattan, Denise Richards - have exactly one joke to deliver, and deliver it repeatedly during the course of ninety minutes. But Undercover Brother isn't a pain to sit through. It scoots by harmlessly, Eddie Griffin is likable, though not the comic powerhouse you might wish for in the role, and Doogie Hauser himself, Neil Patrick Harris, has an astonishing moment when his white-bread twerp shrieks, "I am not ... a sissy!" and goes ultraviolent on some bad guys. I doubt I'll remember much from the movie in a week, but that scene might stay in my head forever.