I remember when this movie first came out and it was a MONSTER. I was only 13 or so at the time and had little interest in it, but my parents and their friends obsessed over it, like it was this holy, rom-com gift from god delivered to the movie-going masses, and that it’d be cinematic blasphemy to not see it or absolutely love it.
I should mention that my parents and most of their friends, and most of my friends’ parents at that time, and still now, are Jewish. Not quite the same thing as being Greek but pretty close. They’re both cultures rooted in a deep, rich history, where if you step outside of it into a new neighborhood or school or workplace, you often feel like an outsider. This creates a love/hate relationship with your culture, it made you who you are but not necessarily who you want to be, it makes you feel safe within its walls but constrained when you look out the window to see what else is out there.
And that’s the dilemma driving Toula Portokaos (played by Nia Vardalos), a 30-year-old woman who waits tables at her family’s restaurant and lives at home, with no male suitors eagerly knocking on their door. Toula has been with her family and followed Greek customs her entire life and now she wants something more than just being the frumpy-looking waitress doing her dad’s bidding. So she takes some computer classes at a local college, gets a new job, and freshens her appearance a bit, bringing her a newfound confidence and the attention of Ian Miller (played by John Corbett).
A key scene happens when Ian and Toula go on their first date. Toula had already noticed Ian in the past when he sipped on coffee at her family’s restaurant, and now Ian remembers that he saw her their once in her less-confident state. Toula is terrified Ian will leave, having discovered this “new” her is nothing but smoke and mirrors. That no matter how much she tries to change and improve upon herself, she’ll still be seen as the 30-year-old Greek woman who lives with her parents, seemingly destined to be nothing more than her father’s daughter.
But Ian stays! He sees Toula not just as the prettier, more accomplished woman sitting in front of him or just as the woman who served him coffee, but both. And the two continue on romantic and familial misadventures with Toula meeting Ian’s parents, Ian meeting Toula’s, well, everybody, and all the craziness that goes into planning a wedding, let alone a Greek wedding.
It’s a simple, conventional storytelling concept but one that stands the test of time because of its advanced understanding of the conflict between being yourself and staying true to your cultural background, and how those things aren’t mutually exclusive, even though they may seem like they are. That’s thanks in all to Vardalos, who conceived My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a play inspired by her own life story, that was then turned into the movie, which she wrote the script for. All the performances are fantastic, but the film’s earnestness and endearing characters are all thanks to Vardalos. The film is coated with touching messages, but the most thoughtful and poignant is that even though you may not like and are constantly annoyed by your family, you got to admit, you can’t help but love them.