When talking about great romantic comedies it is easy to overlook My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Modern film culture has a long standing disdain for the romantic comedy, and much to my chagrin whenever they trot out a "respectable" example of the genre it's invariably When Harry Met Sally. I'm always wishing they would have the sense, knowledge, and brio to bring out instead one of the greatest movies of all time, Moonstruck, but I understand any anti romantic comedy bromide is going to be dead at the start if one goes in with Moonstruck.
But if they must bring out one romantic comedy as a poster child for their war, why not My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the Star Wars of romantic comedies, landing in theaters and becoming an absolute sensation. (This isn't the flimsiest comparison: My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the biggest grossing romantic comedy of all time, and it has spawned TV shows and sequels (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 is coming out this fall!). Because unlike When Harry Met Sally, which appeals to non romantic comedy people by taking cues from more complex relationship movies to soften its romantic comediness, Wedding burrows into the deepest, most lovely heart of the romantic comedy, diffusing some classic elements of the romantic comedy to both invent something new, and yet emerging to capture the secret soul of the genre.
The romantic comedy is full of tropes. But they are just tropes, an assembly of rhythmic accents to the movie. The essentials of a romantic comedy are merely:
Two immensely charming and likeable people amusingly fall in love and get together.
Nevertheless the traditional romantic comedy usually comes along with a variety of barriers to the love interests getting together. This creation of uncertainty, friction, dissolution, difficulty, and disappointment is not just widely considered essential to most narrative plotting in a romantic comedy, but is also generally considered so for all fiction everywhere. My Big Fat Greek Wedding largely eschews this convention. Our main characters, Toula and Ian, meet cute (sort of), experience love at first sight (sort of again, Ian might need the love to be at second sight), date, and get married. The main problem and impediment to their relationship is that they come from different cultures. This causes tension and comedy, but unlike the impediments of other romantic comedies it never keeps or drives them apart. This mildness and warmth of relationship is the secret success of the movie as a romantic comedy.
Of course, it's also wonderfully funny, possibly more so than almost any other romantic comedy. I didn't know this until recently, but apparently our star and screenplay writer, Nia Vardalos, wrote the screenplay, which no one was particularly interested in. So then she made it into a one woman show in L.A. which she performed to small, packed audiences for many months. This reminds me of how the Marx Brothers, before many of their best movies, took them on the road as theater, endlessly improvising and honing their material, testing what worked best and what got the best laughs, before coming back to film it as a movie. As I understand it, Nia Vardalos likewise tested her story over and over and brought out its best qualities. Not only did this provide a tighter and funnier screenplay, but it surely gave her the confidence to stick to her vision for the movie despite a gauntlet of attempts along the way to production to make it more conventional (which is just another word for marketable). Proposed, or even urged along the way, were different star actors, actresses, and ethnicity (let's make it Mexican American instead of Greek, and hire an Italian American star!). But the most telling changes requested were the ones demanding more problems between our main characters- a competing suitor to Ian, or an infidelity of some kind. The brilliant and revolutionary aspect of My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the one where the movie has such confidence in its characters, comedy, and story, that it dares to get rid of nearly all of the usual narrative tensions in the romance genres. It gives the movie a warm, cozy, and open feel, and yet, despite all odds, leaves its romance every bit as satisfying, if not more so, than the romances built under the more standard "will they won't they" structure.
Plots of all kinds rely on narrative tension and conflict. The thriller is most slavishly devoted to this, and it is also why some of the most driven narratives can feel compulsive, addicting, and even manipulative. But the romantic comedy is no stranger to this structure. And yet its most appealing qualities, its warmth, characters, and rosy environments lie underneath that tumult. There is great craft in creating a narrative that is as little beholden to tensions as possible, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a great romantic comedy precisely because it does the unusual work of lessening the romantic narrative tension to give us more of the warmer, more loveable aspects that are at the heart of the romantic comedy. When Harry Met Sally may be a nice reference point for a generic film fan for its filmic romantic comedy ambitions, My Big Fat Greek Wedding would be a better example for real analysis precisely because it looks into to romantic comedy more than it looks out. It is, significantly, less about the catharsis of love, and more about, like in any good wedding, its celebration.
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