Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Film Review: My Life in Ruins

"My Life in Ruins"
 ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"My Life in Ruins" (2009) is another attempt by actress/writer Nia Vardalos to cash in and duplicate the success of her breakout movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (2002) which she starred in and wrote. Don't believe me? Look at the advertising for this movie and every movie she has been in since. In big bold letters it tells us Vardalos is from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", hoping because audiences enjoyed that movie they will just automatically assume any movie with her in it will be funny. That movie came out 12 years ago and nothing Nia Vardalos has done since has compared. You can only get by on the reputation of one movie for so long.

But perhaps that sounds too harsh. Although I am merely stating the obvious. Still, "My Life in Ruins" is not a disaster and maybe doesn't deserve such mean spirited criticism. Maybe. And you can't blame producers and studios for wanting their movie to turn in a profit. They will try whatever advertising they can to bring people to their movie.

Even though "My Life in Ruins" was not written by Vardalos, credit is given to Mike Reiss, who wrote "The Simpson's Move" (2007) and "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (2009), it seems to have been a tailor made vehicle of Vardalos. Place her in a Greek setting and make a romantic comedy. What could go wrong? I have to believe Nia Vardalos had some input with this script. But just like everything else Vardalos has been in since "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", she just doesn't seem to get what made that movie work, what made it connect with audiences. It was that people could relate. They saw themselves in it. It may have been a Greek family presented but audiences, of all different ethnic backgrounds, saw their families. Vardalos just seems to think if she copies particular aspects of that movie lightning will strike twice. So she appears in a comedy set in Greece. Then she writes another romantic comedy that will co-star John Corbett, who was also in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in "I Hate Valentine's Day" (2009). Of course then audiences will think, hey, those two are in another movie, wow, it must be good because "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was good.

What made "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" work was Vardalos wrote about something she knew about - her family and Greek culture. It seemed to be based on her own experiences. You often hear people say, write about what you know. Everyone has one good story in them - their story. And so it was with Vardalos and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" but "My Life in Ruins" isn't in the same league.

The problem is the characters are not believable, the situations are predictable and worst of all, I didn't find the movie to be funny. It is light, meaningless entertainment that is suppose to make us feel good about life, put us a mood for romance. Perhaps hope a good looking stranger will talk to us at the grocery store or on a bus on the way to work.

There is nothing really presented here. The director, Donald Petrie, the screenwriter and Vardalos, just want to make a formula, Hollywood picture that will make people laugh and make money. Nothing wrong with that mind you, sometimes a routine Hollywood lightweight picture is just what we need. But, there are still standards of good and bad. "My Life in Ruins" almost works and I would be more forgiving if the movie was just a tad bit more funny. If there were some big comedy sequences or if I found the love story more believable, if I could see myself in the same situation.

Petrie has been a director of popular mainstream titles such as "Richie Rich" (1994) with Macaulay Culkin, "Miss Congeniality" (2000), "Grumpy Old Men" (1993) and "How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days" (2003), nothing Oscar worthy, just Hollywood fluff. And a lot of those movies found a receptive audience. Petrie doesn't play around with any big ideas, doesn't go in for anything of artistic value, he simply creates a middle of the road movie.

Nia Vardalos plays Georgia. She works as a tour guide in Greece. Mind you, this is not the life she had originally planned when she moved to Greece. She wanted to teach, she studied history, which is why she loves Greece, but, life didn't work out as she expected. So, until the next best thing comes along, this is her life and she hates it.

Georgia competes with co-worker Nico (Alistair McGowan), a kiss up, who gets all the better tourist, while Georgia is stuck with the "losers", the people who constantly complain, have no interest in the culture and just want to go to the beach and check out attractive people.

On this particular tour there is Irv (Richard Dreyfuss) an American traveling on his own, who is a bit of a smartass. He is one of those guys who is always telling jokes which no one else thinks are funny. Then there is the obnoxious American tourist couple (SNL's Rachel Dratch and Harland Williams), who get made when everyone doesn't speak "American", and praise everything back home. There is the bickering couple (Caroline Goodall and Ian Ogilvy) rounding everything out. See what I just did there? All of the characters are cliches. Cultural stereotypes. Unoriginal.

Also on the bus is Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis) the bus driver on the tour. He has a long beard and long hair and there is some debate as to whether or not he speaks English, or if he is human. But beneath that beard, under the long hair, is a gentle man with a good soul. A man who just might be able to get Georgia out of the funk she is in. Maybe Poupi will make her learn to enjoy life again.

And like a puzzle, everything falls into its proper place but I won't reveal anything, just in case you are unable to figure the movie out for yourself.

Vardalos can be sweet and likable. She downplays her good looks, trying to go for an "every woman" appeal, and engages in a lot of self-deprecating humor. Sometimes it works. Here it works overall. But like any actor, you need a good script to carry you through. "My Life in Ruins" is not that script. It showcases some of Vardalos natural screen presence but doesn't do anything with it. It doesn't elevator her to the next step. It doesn't show her potential. Its stuck in first gear.

Richard Dreyfuss in some ways has the best part. He takes a thankless role, which could have been played by anyone, they were lucky to get him, and makes it memorable. That's what I am talking about. Dreyfuss elevates the material. He makes the part better than what was written. He gives his character some dimension. He tries to make this character believable. Vardalos doesn't do that.

"My Life in Ruins" is harmless and predictable. You won't remember much about this movie afterwards and the performances are routine. This is not a disaster. I wouldn't say anything as strong as "worst movie I've ever seen" but still it is not worth your time. If you want to see a light romantic comedy to put you in the mood this Valentine's Day, all I can say is, like friends will tell you after a bad date, you have better options.

[Interesting note: I was in Europe when this movie originally was released. In the UK it went by the title "Driving Aphrodite". The American title, is actually one of the few clever things about the movie. A play on words.]