Nia Vardalos, Rachel Dratch and the Problem with Funny Women in Ruins


In a world of male-dominated feature film comedies, where dudeness and its gnarly idiosyncrasies tend to reign supreme, where do all the funny women go? This week at least two of them will unite onscreen in the underwhelming My Life In Ruins. Nia Vardalos and Rachel Dratch share a good, if unfortunate, amount of screen time in the season's preeminent ethnic mixer about an unhappy tour guide (Vardalos) and the group of stereotyped tourists (including Dratch) who tag along on her romantic journey to self-discovery. More important than its predictable plot, however, is Ruins's sidelong tale of comediennes faced with scant opportunity, capitulating to industry expectations for the sake of their careers.

Vardalos follows up her acting-writing breakout My Big Fat Greek Wedding with this eerily similar (even down to the title) Greek-flavored romantic comedy. But despite appearances, she seems eager to branch beyond -- if not entirely abandon - her apparent cultural comedy niche. To that end she continues work on her own projects, including the upcoming I Hate Valentine's Day, which reunites Vardalos and Wedding co-star John Corbett in a romantic comedy about a single woman who's confident she's evolved past relationships until she has trouble convincing her current man -- and herself -- that five dates is enough for both of them.

"Although it's a romantic comedy, it's a different character for me," Vardalos said last month while promoting Ruins at the Tribeca Film Festival. "I play a floozy. I'm not so nice in it. You're kind of rooting for John Corbett in that one, which I think is an interesting avenue to explore, about being unlikeable." The mere prospect of playing such a character, Vardalos said, is new to her film career. "It's not like I get those offers."

Casting herself in such a role, Vardalos added, is the only way she can exhibit a more expansive range to complacent audiences and filmmakers. "There seems to be this thing out there where people think I want to write my own stuff," she said. "I write out of necessity. The stuff that I get offered is just, you wouldn't believe it. You want to call up the writer's mother and ask 'Would you believe the stuff your son is writing?'"

The actress recalls one eager screenwriter whose first scene had her topless, toting a joint, in bed with another woman. "'You don't understand!'" she said, mocking. "Everyone wants to see the chick from My Big Fat Greek Wedding take her top off!'" While she stressed that she takes no personal offense to any of the aforementioned activities, Vardalos added, "I just don't want to do them on screen." So until a more suitable, and hopefully more exciting role than the one she plays in Ruins, comes along, she'll continue writing her own parts, presumably with her top on.

Her fellow Second City alumna Rachel Dratch, who plays Ruins's obnoxious American tourist Kim, suffers a similar fate at the hands of an unimaginative industry, cast more often in roles that demand over-the-top clowning than modulated comedy. "The kind of things I get, they wouldn't want you to restrain yourself," the seven-year SNL veteran told Movieline. So while doing the googly-eyed big acting expected of her in more commercial pics, Dratch battles on behalf of her own self-guided career -- most recently over distribution of her comedy Spring Breakdown.

The film, co-written by Dratch and also starring Amy Poehler and Parker Posey, follows three friends' adventures from their stale adult existence to a wildly liberating spring break excursion. After getting caught up for years in the Warner Bros. machinery (including the shuttering of its distributor Warner Independent Pictures), Breakdown went to straight to DVD this week. Dratch jokingly whispers the news like a stigmatic secret. "That one's gone through so many incarnations," she said. "You know, there's not a lot of broad female comedies. Most commercial comedies star males, so we were trying to come up with a broad comedy that would star women. That was sort of the goal of it."

We'll see whether or not Spring Breakdown or I Hate Valentine's Day will enjoy the modest success of other chick-flick-defiant female comedies (Baby Mama comes to mind). But My Life In Ruins -- and movies of that unimpressive but distributable ilk -- remains the most prominent vehicle for gals like Dratch and Vardalos, giving frustrating new meaning to the term "funny business."