In an era when family films are almost exclusively comic book adaptations and animated adventures, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" is a relative rarity: a big-hearted, relationship-driven movie suitable for a multi-generational audience. No computer-generated cities were harmed in the making of this film — although a few clichés are pounded relentlessly.
As with the original romantic comedy, a true word-of-mouth hit that became a box office juggernaut in 2002, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" finds a universal story in the saga of the suffocating Greek American Portokalos clan. The sequel is a little like a bear hug from a beloved old relative — the embrace is too tight, the perfume is too strong, but ultimately it still leaves you feeling good inside.
The first film, based on star and screenwriter Nia Vardalos' one-woman theater show, earned an Academy Award nomination for original screenplay and a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for its cast, and yielded a short-lived sitcom. Its depiction of a loving — if crazy — immigrant family inspired by Vardalos' own seemed to catch a cultural moment when audiences were embracing sincerity.
Fourteen years later, that tone may be a harder sell. This time Vardalos' Toula is the daughter of the bride, as Lainie Kazan's Maria and Michael Constantine's Gus discover that their 50-year marriage was never actually official. As her parents deal with marital doubts, Toula's own daughter, Paris (Elena Kampouris), is college shopping and hoping to get some breathing room from her hovering brood.
Vardalos mainly sticks to her formula. As in the original film, which was directed by Joel Zwick, the characters are broad, and the conflict comes from tensions between the zany, first-generation Greeks and their more toned-down Americanized heirs.
Thanks to the charisma and warmth of the older cast members, working this time under the laid-back direction of Englishman Kirk Jones ("Waking Ned Devine"), this works more often than it doesn't, and even familiar jokes manage to land.
The filmmakers still rely on sitcom-style gags — the reveal of a gaudy backyard wedding tent, the excessive spritz of a bottle of Windex — but Vardalos wisely surrenders much of the screen time to her supporting cast, and what the movie lacks in polish it makes up for in soul.
Constantine delivers an appealing mixture of bravado and bumbling as Gus, a man claiming cultural superiority who doesn't know how to use a computer mouse. According to Gus, the Greeks invented everything, even Italy, and now he's on an Internet quest to confirm that he is a direct descendant of Alexander the Great. In a sequence that will feel familiar to anyone who has ever introduced an older relative to Google, this quest will take a village.
It's easy to see why the family hovers in Maria's orbit, as Kazan, too, projects a confidence and earthy sense of fun even when she's just presiding over her kitchen island. Later in the film, when Maria wonders whether a life with Gus was all her destiny held, Kazan reveals the vulnerable heart beating under the muumuus. Andrea Martin is also a scene stealer, dispensing unsolicited advice ("Shave everything!") with brio.
Unfortunately Vardalos and John Corbett, who returns as Toula's unfailingly patient WASP husband, Ian, have a lot less appeal than their older counterparts. Ian is as underwritten as any bland wife character in an Adam Sandler movie, and his saintly tolerance for his in-laws leaves Corbett with precious little to do, while Vardalos' mugging style of acting fails in selling their love. The plot line that this marriage is in a passionless rut may be almost too believable — at a certain point it's not clear these two people even know each other.
Perhaps charisma skips a generation, because as teenager Paris, Kampouris manages the impossible task of playing a sulky adolescent you'd actually want to spend time around. Her timing is funny and true in appalled reactions to her grandfather's premature concern for her fertility and her mother's clinging, and her budding romance with a cute schoolmate (Alex Wolff) feels sweet rather than saccharine.
It's unlikely "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" will ever match the jaw-dropping box office success of the first film, but it matches it in one important regard — heart. And as sequels go, you could do a lot worse.
'My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2'
Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: In general release