Franchises rarely get better as they go along. Unfortunately, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is no exception to the rule, as the expanded saga of the Portokalos family becomes less compelling, introspective and funny the more time we spend with them. The first film, centered on a woman’s quest to find herself and establish her identity within her overbearing family unit, was a sleeper 2002 hit with uplifting sentiment at its core. Its first sequel, in 2016, had trouble duplicating that same lightning in a bottle. With an overstuffed and underdeveloped narrative bloated by sitcom-inspired shenanigans — perhaps leftover from the failed TV spinoff series “My Big Fat Greek Life” — it delivered a toxic message about familial codependence wrapped up in a cutesy, cloying package.
Twenty-one years after audiences initially said “I do,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3” compels us to start divorce proceedings. Revolving around our beloved, put-upon protagonist returning to her deceased father’s homeland to perform one final favor, this threequel is surprisingly lifeless and almost laugh-less. To an alarming degree, writer-director Nia Vardalos undervalues the worth of her own creation, recoiling from much of the story’s earned emotional pull or any sense of genuine interpersonal strife that doesn’t take more than a scene to resolve. And, for a franchise whose long running gag involves proving all words are derived from the Greek language, it’s more than ironic that this chapter is lacking in humanistic drama — an art we can credit to the Greeks.
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Toula (Vardalos) is caught at another crossroads in her life. As she states in her voiceover (but is never actually shown to be the case), her smothering, tight-knit family has fractured a bit since the death of her father Gus (Michael Constantine, who passed away in 2021). It doesn’t help matters that her easily embarrassed daughter Paris (Elena Kampouris) is away at college in another state, causing her to incessantly worry, and her aged mother Maria (Lainie Kazan) is ailing with Alzheimer’s, though she remains lucid enough to crack wise about her memory issues. Toula’s sweet, golden retriever-esque hubby Ian (John Corbett) has recently retired and thinks it’s time to finally take a vacation, just the two of them. It’s cute that, after all these years, he still doesn’t fully grasp the chokehold his wife’s family has on her. If he did, these movies would be in a very different place from the one we find them in — maybe a more profound one.
Still, Toula has one last thing she’s been tasked to do: travel to her father’s rural hometown in Greece, find his three best friends and deliver to them his well-worn journal chronicling his American adventures. A perfect opportunity arises when they receive an invitation for his seaside village’s reunion, put on by its indomitable young mayor Victory (Melina Kotselou). Since the matriarch of the family can’t travel, half of the extended family stays behind to care for her as the others — including Toula, Ian, Paris, Toula’s brother Nick (Louis Mandylor), Aunt Frieda (Maria Vacratsis) and Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin, who remains this franchise’s MVP) –—hop on the overseas flight to discovery. Hijinks ensue, involving the town’s resident sour-faced grump Alexandra (Anthi Andreopoulou) and mustachioed mystery man Peter (Alexis Georgoulis).
Given how comfortable the original ensemble is returning to the characters Vardalos lovingly crafted all those years ago, a hangout movie might have been a better model for this sloppily structured one — giving them room for some poignant meta-context, mourning both their fellow actor and the character he played. As is, it’s a disjointed mashup of half-baked storylines that splinter the cast until the very end when yet another wedding necessitates their group participation. Paris’ primary problem isn’t so much harboring a secret about college, but rather fretting over dating Aunt Voula’s adorable assistant Aristotle (Elias Kacavas). Worse, it’s disheartening to see Toula’s ever-evolving journey towards self-empowerment sidelined in favor of far less interesting characters. What should have been an inspirational capper on a trilogy ends with a shrug of resignation.
In terms of the newer cast, Alexandra and Peter’s motivations for change are murky at best. They’re adamant in their unwavering opinions until, mere minutes later, they’re conveniently not — with nary a hint of internal struggle. None of their eccentricities compares to the hilarious quirks of the immediate family members. Though Syrian immigrant Qamar (Stephanie Nur) and her boyfriend Christos (Giannis Vasilottos) have a marital conundrum that faintly parallels Toula and Ian’s (something they even reference, as if we can’t remember), except we’re not given much reason to care about them. Their story is rushed through, making us question their inclusion if Vardalos wasn’t going to make it count.
There are a few saving graces. Though Nick is mostly used as comedic relief, his quest manifests late in the picture and blessedly holds a tangible amount of pathos. Angelo (Joey Fatone) and Nikki (Gia Carides) are a breath of fresh air, saving the day in more ways than one, both rescuing their cousins from impending disappointment, and us from a plateau in energy. Vardalos, in her second directorial effort, and cinematographer Barry Peterson have an eye for beautiful imagery, whether capturing the frivolity of a spontaneous swim in the ocean or the magic of a traditional ceremony. Even the repetitive cutaways to barnyard animals are done with a modicum of comedic and artistic panache.
Two sequels deep, it’s baffling that the filmmakers involved don’t make room for more interesting conflicts to arise even within the franchise’s breezy, light-hearted brief. With its sprawling family dynamic, colorful cast of characters and rich, universally resonant touchstones, what was set up in the original film had the potential to take on a life of its own. In the decades since its release, the ideas gestated have been poorly nurtured, limiting the story’s growth while testing our patience. There’s simply not enough Windex to fix this franchise.
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