Summer surprise: 'Greek Wedding' keeps growing

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a summer of light sabers and web slingers, it may come as a surprise that one of the most talked about movies features not muscle, but mousaká.

What "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" lacks in high-profile stars, it makes up for in characters who can do things like find the Greek origin of any word – even kimono.

Part paean to Greek culture, part romantic comedy, the film opened in a few cities in April and has spread across the US through word of mouth. Last weekend, was the No. 6 film in the US.

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"[It's] one of the biggest stories of the summer of 2002," says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box-office receipts. "It's the most significant indie film performance since 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' "

Grandmothers and 20-something guys, Italians and Irishmen (and Greeks, of course) are all lining up to watch a Greek wallflower find her not-so-Hellenic Mr. Right.

Ironically, star Nia Vardalos initially had a hard time convincing Hollywood that the movie version of her play should be about Greeks.

"I said No, wait, hold on, this is about my Greek family," recalls the comedian. "And they said, 'Look, we know Italian wedding movies work, nothing against Greeks. How about Hispanic?' " Cultural observers point out that the laugh-out-loud film is less narrowly focused than most summer flicks, which are often targeted at teens.

But they – and moviegoers – say it also taps into universal themes like family relationships. And it lets Americans who aren't affiliated with a specific culture vicariously experience what that's like, in the same vein as the movie "Moonstruck" and TV's "The Sopranos."

"It's very refreshing to find a film that reflects it all on issues of ethnicity, family, and identity," says Ann Hetzel Gunkel, a professor of cultural studies at Columbia College in Chicago. "I think it's aimed at a larger audience than a Greek audience," she says.

Buzz about the tiny-budget movie began before its release, thanks to a grass-roots campaign that targeted local outlets and Greek events – an approach that continued after it hit theaters. Even mixed reviews from critics haven't dampened interest, with theaters in cities like Dallas still reporting sell-out crowds, many months after its release.

"I heard about it from a friend who said, 'You have got to go see this movie,'" says Vicki Giambrone of Dayton, Ohio, who saw it twice last weekend.

If it continues on its current track, "Greek Wedding" may end up being the only independent film in the top 25 movies of the year.

Though it likely won't surpass the profits of 1999 breakout indie hit "The Blair Witch Project," it could turn a profit faster than a blockbuster like "Minority Report," since its production and marketing costs were so much lower. Made for about $5 million, "Greek Wedding" has earned about $53 million, and is still gathering momentum.

"We were in 1,070 [theaters] this past weekend, and we're going up to ... almost 1,200 this coming weekend. Theaters are asking for us now," says Paula Silver, a marketing consultant who worked on the film.

Greeks are among those cheering the loudest. "I saw it the weekend it came out," says Faye Nikolaidis of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is recommending it to others and was "proud that people could experience what I have been brought up with."

Discussions about the movie are frequently happening across generations. "My parents insisted that we go. It's the topic of dinner conversation, at least in the last few months," says New Yorker Alison Miller, who saw it with her non-Greek husband last month.

Even Greek guys are into it. "It was one of the few chick flicks I actually enjoyed," says Dean Mastrojohn, who saw the film in New Jersey in June. "I went with a big group of Greek people. The lines were down the block, it was crazy."

All this suggests that Ms. Vardalos knows her people. The movie is based on the one-woman play she wrote and performed in Los Angeles several years ago.

In a fairy-tale twist, actress Rita Wilson, who is Greek and the wife of Tom Hanks, saw the show and suggested it should be made into a movie. Conveniently, Ms. Wilson's husband owns a production company, and she and Hanks ended up as producers, and used Vardalos' screenplay.

"I'm such a Greek tragedian, I expected it to fall apart at any moment, so I didn't tell anybody," Vardalos says of the deal in an interview.

The Canadian says she knew from her play that if she could get a few Greeks to the film, "they would realize that there is nothing in it that was offensive and they would tell their 27 first cousins."

Not all Greeks see themselves in every aspect of the film (statues of Greek gods on the front porch?). And some really liked it but still found issues that could have been nuanced, like the father not wanting his daughter to get an education.

"Our strong immigrant heritage and upbringing urged women to be educated and to have careers – as well as marry Greek husbands and have lots of babies. That didn't come through," says Cheri Collis White, a fan of the movie, who saw it her twin sister in Louisville, Ky.

But the overwhelming response from moviegoers is turning heads in show business, and consumers could start seeing more movies about families, and one Greek family in particular.

"We have had offers to do a sequel, a musical, a board game, a TV show," says Vardalos. "I'm like, what's next, the action figure?"

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