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MBFGW2: A Must See again and again!

The big problem with a sequel to a blockbuster is the danger that it won’t keep the standards or pack the punch of the original.  That certainly is not the case with My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2; in fact, I believe MBFGW2 is superior to the first version.  This is something quite rare in the film world.

Having just got back from Lincoln Cinemas pre-screening of the flick, I am still caught up in the rapture of the experience.  Nia Vardalos and John Corbett were on hand to usher in the preview and to remind us that it has been 14 years since the release of the first movie.  But, it was all worth the wait.

Not only does MBFGW2 adhere to the original characters with original cast that we can recognize and continue to love , Gus and Maria Portokalos, Theia Vaso, Toula and Ian, but it goes beyond the first in the depth of its themes, the complexity of conflict, and the roundedness of its characters.  While the first version made us laugh because it played with common Greek stereotypes, and don’t’ get me wrong the second one does the same, wrenching out peals of deep laughter from its audience, the second goes beyond just telling a funny story to grapple with the conflicts of identity that shape Greek American existence.

We see in the second version Toula and Ian fast forward 18 years later with their daughter a senior in high school about to enter college.  More than one conflict appears in this version, as opposed to the central one in the first mainly focusing on Toula’s coming out as a marriageable daughter and her conflict in marrying a ‘xeno’.  Paris, their daughter, for one feels the love/hate dynamic of growing up bicultural.  She is not a member of the Greek Club but instead chooses to wear heavy blue eyeliner and dark hoodies to fit in as a typical teen growing up in a Chicago suburb.  She loves her big Greek family, but she wants to stay true to her budding individuality.  The big decision is where she will choose to go to college: stay local at one of the universities in Chicago or venture far far away from her overly dramatic family.  Toula monologues the conflict precisely when she says, “Greek families stick together so closely sometimes some of us get stuck.”  Her big issue is to get unstuck.  Paris, a second version of Toula, living with her extended clan has to hear the same spiel from Pappou, “You look old. You have to get married and have Greek babies.”  Pappou is resolved from the first scene to get Paris a Greek boyfriend.

There are issues with Toula and Ian’s marriage as well.  “There is no romance after marriage,” Ian says more than once.  Toula is too busy being a supermom, taking care of the restaurant (the travel agency closed, a casualty of the economic downturn), tending to the ailments of her elderly father, and the one who fixes everything that she has neglected her role as a wife.  They are suffering through the boredom of middleagehood and their love life is paying the price.  The conflict for them is to rekindle the spark in their marriage.  To this end, the ever-wise Thea Voula comes to their aid. “Go on a date with your husband,” she advises Toula. Remember you were a girlfriend before you were a mother. In her cut-to-the-chase, no-nonsense tone, she tells her to “shave everything.” Connected to this conflict is Toula’s need to take a step back and allow her daughter to grow. She has to face the painful process of separating from a beloved only daughter, something that is difficult for any mother to do but excruciating for a Greek because of the family’s tightness.

Perhaps the most surprising conflict is between Gus and Maria, the yiayia and papou’s relationship.  It turns out while Gus was conducting genealogy research in his efforts to prove that he is a direct descendent of Alexander the Great he uncovers his marriage certificate from Greece. But there is a problem. It was never signed by the priest (he had not technically been ordained as there was no money back then).  That means the couple was technically never married.  So what starts off as an oversight blows up into a major test of their 50-year-long marriage.  Maria refuses to marry him without his giving her a proper proposal.  The possibility that they are not married, spins her into a deeper consideration of do they really want to? She starts to deeply revisit her reasons for marrying him in the first place and uses this as an opportunity to review her life and the choices she has made.  He had not proposed to her in a romantic way but as an ultimatum, “I am leaving for American in a few months, if you can survive with me, come along.”  His refusal to propose escalates into her going on strike: she refuses to do his laundry or the cooking, or to sleep in the same bed with him (as they are technically not married). There is even contention in the family business; he is technically the owner, which makes her his employee.  “In that case, you owe me 50 years of back payments for working overtime,” she reminds him.

For a while it seems that the foundation of the clan, the yiayia and pappou, do not want to marry; what they took for granted is no longer a given.  Only a mishap while Gus was having a bath causing him to go to the hospital turns the story around.  On a gurney about to be wheeled into the ambulance, Gus makes a plea for Maria to accompany him because he can’t live without her. That was a good enough proposal which ushers in the second half of the film (much like the first film): arranging for the big wedding for yiayia and pappou.

MBFGW2 works the second time around because there is so much stuff to make you laugh again and again: the formula that worked well for the first movie continues into the second and then some. The exaggeration in the first movie is even more exaggerated in the second.

Here’s some of the stock ingredients that made for laughs:

Pappou’s panacea of Windex (the first scene of the movie is his unfreezing the driver’s door by spraying Windex on it) helps him unhinge an ailing hip joint (he even sprays it into his pants).

Thea Vaso’s litany of physical ailments. “ There is a mole on my tummy shaped like Mykonos” “When I got married, I would only ovulate from my right ovary. The left ovary nothing but the right would spit out 2 eggs at a time– ping ping!)

Yiayia, Gus’ mother, still dressed in black; hiding under conference table at the college fair  with Tupperware of spanakopita; or dressed up in a wedding gown acting as a dummie in a department store window.

The standard Greek word plays “Give me a word, any word and I will show you that the root is Greek.” They accomplished this throughout the movie  with such words as hockey, chimichanga.

Sex references: Pappou tells Ian that he only begot one daughter and not five sons like Nick, Toula’s brother, because he was a vegetarian with slow sperm. Voula harkens back to her wedding night telling the girls under the hair dryers getting ready for the wedding how her mother had advised her to faint if she felt too nervous.  She tells about dressing up as a wizard for Taki because he carried a magic wand. The part where Pappou snags Ian and Toula in the act in their car after a romantic date: “You don’t have a home to do that?” he asks in his thick Greek accent.

And there are new conflicts in this version.  For the wedding, Gus’ brother, Panos, is flown from Greece.  The rivalry between the one brother who left the home country to make a fortune and be successful in another vs. the one who stayed behind in the homeland without the opportunity clothes the larger tension between who is an authentic Greek: the one who forsakes his motherland by leaving or the one who stays faithful to her by staying put?

What made MBFGW2 so compelling was the richness in the way the age-old themes and conflicts were revisited in the second version.  It especially focused on the push-pull of bicultural identity as reflected in the changing values of the Diaspora.  Traditional marriage has always been at the center of life. But when women like Toula and her daughter grow up in America, the traditions that are taken for granted suddenly start to be questioned.  Toula apologizes for her father’s remarks to her daughter that she need to start thinking about marrying at 17; that she does not have to worry about how she looks.  In the climax of the movie, just when Maria comes down the aisle in her wedding dress ready to marry Gus again, she sees him laughing and carrying on with his brother and Takis, (they had gotten wasted on Ouzo shots in the police car on the way to the church).  She walks away from the altar and retreats to the tiny office of the priest behind the ambo.  From there she openly expresses her doubts at marrying a “crazy old” man.  She delivers a feminist manifesto to the entire congregation as the loudspeaker is on. “Who says a woman is supposed to be married?”she asks. Maybe I could have t r aveled or  saved people from  diseases instead.  I wanted an adventure not to be stuck taking care of a grouchy old man and giving him his castor oil everyday . . . “

It’s much more complicated to be a Greek in America. Thea Voula knows that Angelo’s “partner” is not just a business partner. She condones him and accepts him as part of the family, an anathema to a traditional Greek family.

In the conflict between the traditional Greek values of staying true to the clan vs staying true to you, the film makes an untraditional yield.  It is ironically the crazy yiayia that whispers to her great-granddaughter that she should not make a decision to please her parents and her extended family by staying close to home, but take the decision to go away to NYU for college.  It is a scene that legitimizes rugged individualism, a value adopted as part of the new culture, by espousing it from a symbolic representative of the Old Country.  It’s OK to follow your heart and be true to yourself; this is how you will grow. Your needs take precedence over blind obedience to your family.

Yes, your big loud Greek family can pool their resources together to give yiayia and pappou an affordable wedding, but they don’t give you space to breathe in.  They also interfere with a nuclear family’s ability to cohere.  Ian gives up on waiting for Toula to meet him for a date.  The needs of her original family, the duty owed to her mother and father trump those of her husband’s and her own marriage.  Ian points out that she uses the excuse of taking care of her family to avoid being alone with him.  Is this really a healthy way to be? the movie questions.

Cultural dissonance and the resentment at being seen as culturally different raises its angry head in this version.  While in the original film we see Toula being ridiculed by her two lunchmates for eating moose kaka, 20 years later, Toula overhears the same two, now her neighbors, making comments such as “That’s such a  weird family.” But this time she sets them straight, “What is wrong with you?” she asks them.”You are standing on my driveway in front of my house while my father is getting wheeled away in an ambulance.”  She stands up for the “other” and the way non-Americans are stereotyped and criticized just for being different.  What’s wrong with you America, she seems to say, “You are made up of immigrants. You are a nation of diversity. Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.”  At the end of the film, these same neighbors with an axe to grind come to the house to complain of the noise from the wedding party.  Toula invites them to come to the backyard party and then they comply.  They were only being resentful because they weren’t allowed to take part in the fun of being an “other” like the fun-loving Greeks.

MBFGW2 brings the conflicts and themes across the three generations of the Portokalos clan into a well-orchestrated resolution. Maria comes to terms with the life choices she has made.  Her brave adventure was to make a family. She was brave to leave home and travel to a new world without a map.  She realizes that although she could kill him, she does love Gus. “He is a good but crazy man.  It’s been a good life.” Gus realizes that although it seemed like he was taking her for granted, it was because she had become a part of him. He could not live without her.   Ian and Toula reaffirm their wedding vows in the shadow of her parent’s wedding.  In a sense they start all over again.  They reinstill the magic in their marriage by coming to terms with the fact that their job as parent is done.  “We are newlyweds now,” they say, redirecting their focus on their own marriage.

Unbeknownst to her Paris asks out a young man to the prom who turns out to be Greek.  She is secretly overjoyed because in her heart even though she wants to separate and individuate she still wants to hold on to her Greek roots.  Having a Greek-American boyfriend with the romantic possibility that he just might wind up to be your husband is all that she needs as a 2nd generation Hellene to keep her culture alive.

Just like a Shakespearean comedy, the film ends in a wedding in a traditional church.  Marriage is a sacred institution. It is what makes a family happen.  It is through an act of union that three generations are tied together.

The moral of it: Keep the Greek but adapt to the American. Much like Paris’ prom date says about the Greek Club in school, “We eat food and make fun of our parents.” This is just what the film does: forces us to feel the bittersweet love/hate push/pull of our bicultural identity by making fun of it.

Without a doubt, MBFGW2 is so much richer and more complex in its storytelling.  A total must see, again and again.