My Life in Ruins (2009): Nia (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) Vardalos Charmless Comedy

The Greek-American actress Nia Vardalos is a likeable performer with a facile easygoing charm (but not much depth or interesting screen persona), who hit the jackpot with her first big starring role, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which she wrote for herself.  


Surprisingly (and undeservedly), that picture became an international hit, with an impressive gross of close to $400 million (half of which generated domestically in the U.S.).  Her second feature was the dreadfully derivative comedy, “Connie and Carla,” in 2004, co-starring Toni Collette, a truly sophomore jinx.


Vardalos took a few years off and is now back with a disappointingly shallow, utterly formulaic romantic comedy, “My Life in Ruins,” in which she plays an embittered, middle-aged American tour guide in Greece who has almost given up on love–that is, until she finds happiness when and where she least expects it.


Inexplicably, “My Life in Ruins” world-premiered as closing night of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival (in May) and is now being released by Fox Searchlight as counter-programming to summer’s big-budget, effects-driven sci-fi actioners.


If you feel you have seen this picture before, you would be right.  The notion of American “girls” (younger or older) who just want to have fun abroad has been done before.  Remember the Rome-set “Three Coins in the Fountain,” Katharine Hepburn’s spinster teacher in David Lean’s Venice-set “Summertime,” or more recently Diane Lane in “Under the Tuscan Sun.”  But, alas, Vardalos is not Hepburn or Lane, and her director, Donald Petrie, a craftsman who has helmed mostly schlocky flicks, such as “Grumpy Old Men,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” and “Miss Congeniality”, is of no help, either.


Unlucky at both love and finding a good job in her home country, Greek-American history professor Georgia goes to Athens to regain her mojo (“kefi” as the Greeks call it).   During an extended visit to a country, where each and every citizen seems to be happy, she gets a job as a professional tour guide, hoping to find an eager audience for her accumulated knowledge of Ancient Greece.  Her position calls for steering an eclectic group of mismatched tourists through the monuments of ancient civilization.


But the travelers who take Georgia’s tour bus are more interested in  relaxing at Greece’s famous beaches and bars than learning about its celebrated sites.  In fact, Georgia’s insistence that the vacationers listen to her scholarly lectures about the glory of the ancient world makes her the least popular guide in Pangloss Tours.


At every stop, her charges rush off to get souvenirs or ice cream instead of savoring the wonders facing them.  However, stubborn and determined, Georgia sticks to her guns, refusing to change her program to suit the needs or desires of her customers.  As a result, she gets punished by her acerbic boss (Bernice Stegers), who in an effort to make her quit, cuts a deal with another tour guide, Nico (Alistair McGowan). Following the same itinerary, Nico executes some mean-spirited pranks that turn Georgia’s group against her.  With everything going wrong, a near-desperate Georgia considers abandoning the tour—and her life in Greece.  Or does she? 


Emmy award winner scribe Mike Reiss, who had penned “The Simpsons Movie,” has disappointingly produced a scenario that’s embarrassingly full of timeworn ideas and cultural clichés, a yarn in which all the characters, lead and supporting, are stereotypical.

Take Georgia’s tour group, which represents an eccentric cross-cultural clique, including loudmouthed Americans in their baseball caps and sneakers (Rachel Dratch and Harland Williams), Australians who love beer more than anything else (Simon Gleeson and Natalie O’Donnell), stuffy and pretentious Brits (Ian Ogilvy and Caroline Goodall) and their sullen teenage daughter (Sophie Stuckey), recently divorced Spanish women (María Botto and María Ádanez), a kleptomaniac senior citizen and her mute husband (Sheila Bernette and Ralph Nossek), and a workaholic IHOP sales representative (Brian Palermo), who’s addicted to text-messaging.


Slightly rising above them all is Irv (Richard Dreyfuss), a sensitive Jewish widower, who seems to have quips or gags for every occasion.  Never mind that most of them are corny: Irv trots them out whenever the group’s interest in Georgia’s lectures begins to wane, which is most of the time.  (Rita Wilson, who alongside husband-actor Tom Hanks, is one of the film’s producers, plays Irv’s late wife). 


To make matters worse, Georgia is been assigned the most dilapidated tour bus, the crummiest hotels in Greece, and Pangloss’ scariest (seemingly mute) bus driver, Procopi “Poupi” Kakas (Alexis Georgoulis), a wild man who has more hair than anyone on earth. 


“My Life in Ruins” unfolds as a minor midlife crisis tale with “useful life lessons,” in which Georgia is forced to learn that her clients are not the only ones who need to open their eyes to the wonders of the world.  Just when Georgia is reaching the breaking point, a special person on the bus takes her on a personal detour that teaches her to look for beauty, not academic knowledge.  That special individual not only transforms the overly cerebral and educated American guide into a newly-born sexy woman, but also improves her professional skills, for now she’s able to enchant her reluctant group with a fresher, more pragmatic and entertaining perspective on history!


For a film that’s meant to celebrate Greece as sort of a new “Hollywood Heaven” in the wake of the global success of “Mamma Mia!” I find it strange that the country is depicted so stereotypically, and not always in a positive way. Yes, like Melina Mercouri in “Never on Sunday” and Anthony Quinn in “Zorba the Greek,” the Greeks in “My Life in Ruins” are fun-loving, down-to-earth folks wo know how to enjoy the most mundane element of their lives.  But they also seem to live a place in which corruption runs rampant (merchants are always out to cheat their customers), hotels are shabby with malfunctioning showers, and so on.   

In the end, what you are left of is a picaresque look of Greece’s famous monements, such as the Acropolis and the Temple of Delphi, which you would have enjoyed seeing in National Geographic or on TV, without the burden of sitting through a retro flick that even lacks the fun quotient of mediocre fare like “Mamma Mia!”



Georgia – Nia Vardalos
Irv – Richard Dreyfuss
Lena – Maria Adanez
Dorcas – Sheila Bernette
Lala – Maria Botto
Kim – Rachel Dratch
Poupi – Alexis Georgoulis
Barnaby – Ralph Nossek
Maria – Bernice Stegers
Big Al – Harland Williams



A Fox Searchlight release of a 26 Films production, in association with Kanzaman Prods.

Produced by Michelle Chydzik Sowa, Nathalie Marciano.

Executive producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Rita Wilson, Peter Safran, Jeff Abberly, Julia Blackman.

Co-producers, Denise O’Dell, Mark Albela.

Directed by Donald Petrie.

Screenplay: Mike Reiss.
Camera: Jose Luis Alcaine.

Editor: Patrick J. Don Vito.

Music: David Newman; music supervisors, Deva Anderson, Delphine Robertson.

Production designer: David Chapman.

Art director: Jonathan McKinstry; set decorator, Christine Athina Vlachos.

Costume designers: Lala Huete, Lena Mossum.

Supervising sound editors:Victor Ray Ennis, Kelly Oxford.


MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 95 Minutes.