In Theaters: My Life in Ruins
Really, Nia Vardalos should be a superstar. She's smart, beautiful, a Second City alumna with sharp instincts and exquisite comic timing. She understands audiences, and how -- the woman conceived, wrote and starred in an indie that made $368 million globally. But the seven years since My Big Fat Greek Wedding haven't yielded quite the bounty she deserves: the sitcom effort My Big Fat Greek Life tailspun at CBS in 2003 after seven episodes, and her big-screen follow-up, Connie and Carla, underacheived at the box office a year later. More miss than hit, but surely no fluke, she returns this week with My Life in Ruins, as serviceable a romantic comedy as it is a breathtaking anti-intellectual broadside.
Vardalos plays Georgia, an unemployed humanities professor stranded in Greece, slumming as a tour guide until her academic ship comes in. (Her outfit: Pangloss Tours, thus sealing the Faustian deal.) She might be waiting a while: A rejected job application appears the same morning she's to disembark on her next trip, this one featuring a United Nations of loutish tourists including beer-swilling Aussies, snooty Brits, Spanish divorcees, semi-retarded Americans and the puckish widower Irv (Richard Dreyfuss). None have any interest in Georgia's geo-historical expertise, unless it might guide them to the oldest ice-cream stand in Athens or junk bazaar in Thessaloniki.
Needless to say the inertia is more than Georgia can stand. She's lost her kefi -- Greek mojo -- and between her boss's conspiracy to get her fired and her overall social alienation, it may be time to pack it in. Even the Greeks themselves have exhausted her. "This country's disregard for rules and order is just sloppy," she spits at her tour bus driver, a strapping philosophical sort who (SPOILER ALERT) just might hide a dollface under that bushy beard of his. Georgia will have to wait overnight in the worst hotel in Greece to find out, penning a letter of resignation in the meantime.
But just as Ruins could easily have been titled My Big Fat Greek Mid-Life Crisis, a subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Mediocrity could be equally in order. The trick to life, as Irv teaches her (between yawning at her detailed tours), is to lighten up; in doing so, Georgia sexes up the myth of Delphi and retreats to the Zorba standard of dancing when the going gets tough. Both of which fuel some of the film's more immediate comic hits (balancing poignancy and sardonic wit, Dreyfuss wins the day), but also precipitates a life-changing, kefi-reclaiming epiphany for Georgia: She's happier following than she is leading. It's not quite worth explaining how she got there, but the insane implications inspire at least a few minutes of stunned silence once the lights come up: Suddenly in love after about four days, and with the option of returning to her academic career, Georgia stays on her bus.
And if it seems unreasonable to judge that kind of concession in a romcom, blame the filmmakers for leaving that door open. After all, it's hard -- nay, impossible -- to know what other reaction screenwriter Mike Reiss and director Donald Petrie could have anticipated when their excoriated tourist stereotypes turn out to have the moral upper hand over an educated, intelligent 40-something woman. As much as it embraces the romance of her Mediterranean idyll, Georgia's change of heart rejects the painstaking rationale that she knows made Greece the cultural watershed that it is. Worse yet, Ruins seems to assume its viewers won't get that -- as though the Parthenon was built on the side of the path of least resistance.
Again, Nia Vardalos should be a superstar. I'm pulling for her, and I admit: Despite all its flaws, I hope My Life in Ruins is a hit this weekend. Anything to nudge her into material where she belongs. RATING: 5