After nearly two decades exploring every fold and crevice of the vast lower intestinal tract that is modern cinema, I’ve grown hearty and resourceful, learning to love movies in spite of themselves when necessary. I can laugh at any sans-a-joke Saturday Night Live spin-off. The dumbest horror films still make me yelp a bit, if only for their acting and production values.
In fact, there are really only three surefire ways to drive me from a movie theater shrieking with revulsion: 1. Any variation on the scene in that Star Trek movie where the bug crawls in the guy’s ear; 2. Woody Allen making out with a woman young enough to be his mortician’s daughter; and 3. Any film promoted with the words, “heartwarming family drama.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these three characteristics independently, but together, they almost invariably lead to poisonous, dishonest cinema. From Ordinary People to Tortilla Soup, films of this ilk are chiefly repulsive for their self-importance. They mistake soap-opera plotting and sitcom one-liners for the stuff of entertaining dramedy, and trot out the same quirky supporting actors with all the funny lines, the same invariable third-act deaths and/or marriages, and the same monolithic importance of food.
Two very different films with family, marriage and food on their minds hit Salt Lake theaters this weekend. Monsoon Wedding is a competent tale of love and family set in New Delhi, yet its imitative story line and determinedly offbeat cast of characters is straight Hollywood saccharine cloaked in the distracting scent of curry.
Aditi (Vasundhara Das) is engaged to a guy from Houston who seems to be her ticket out of her semi-destitute family life, even though she’s really in love with some married guy. Subplots abound as the wedding approaches, the most interesting among them being the efforts of an adopted cousin to set straight an uncle with a penchant for pedophilia.
There are interesting dances, fine costumes and the odd pseudo-musical number here, but boring director Mira Nair never strays far enough from the Heartwarming Family Drama school. The main characters get less compelling as we move along, particularly when the requisite happy ending looms over the picture more than 40 minutes before its conclusion. It’s relying on quirk and unfamiliar ethnicity to carry it stateside. It’s Bollywood for upper-middle-class Americans, and that’s why so many art-house goers will love it.
In a lighter vein, My Big Fat Greek Wedding crams more gentle ethnic stereotypes than you can shake a shish kebab at into a somewhat entertaining story of the romantic travails of sweet, slightly dull single Greco-American woman Toula Portalakos (Nia Vardalos, who wrote the film based on her one-woman show, and got the picture financed by Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson).
She’s only 30, but Toula fears she’s “past her expiration date.” Her restaurateur father (Michael Constantine as the thickest ethnic cliché since Carroll O’Connor in Return to Me) also wonders why she isn’t married with children, leading Toula to ditch her ugly glasses, bad hairdo and dumpy physique as only a movie character can. Presto, a WASPy dream guy appears (John Corbett), leading to all sorts of cute culture clashes on the way to the altar.
Sure, the leads don’t have much chemistry, and the comedy is broad, but there’s a certain goofy charm to Vardalos’ backhanded dedication to the idea that a woman can catch her dream man if only she tries hard enough. In the end, Vardalos slides back to the safe ground of the Heartwarming Family Drama, but she makes us laugh enough to earn the nod over the dry Monsoon Wedding.
Still, there’s nothing here that you haven’t already seen before. And to the people who love this stuff, I suppose that’s fantastic news.