Seven years after hitting the jackpot with 2002's overrated surprise smash hit, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and five years since her last feature film, 2004's box-office dud "Connie and Carla
," Nia Vardalos returns from her career hiatus with a film better than both of the above. "My Life in Ruins" is not a dramatic departure from what Vardalos has done in the past, but there seems to be less cloying artifice this time around, in a romantic comedy where the love story takes a backseat to the more meaningful tale of a lost and unhappy woman coming into her own as a person.
Tour guide Georgia (Nia Vardalos) loves Greece, but she's understandably not too fond of the vacationers she must lead around, most of them more interested in shopping and eating ice cream than learning about the country's rich history. Her latest group of tourists are the usual suspectsamong them, clueless Americans (Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch), snooty Brits (Caroline Goodall, Ian Ogilvy and Sophie Stuckey), booze-guzzling Australians (Simon Gleeson and Natalie O'Donnell), Spanish divorcées (Maria Botto and Maria Adanez), a wisecracking fogey (Richard Dreyfuss), and an elderly kleptomaniac (Sheila Bernette)and Georgia, unable to win them over or grab their attention like rival guide Nico (Alistair McGowan), winces at the very prospect of being stuck on a stuffy, hot bus with them for the better part of a week. Making the life-altering decision to quit her job once this latest tour is finished, Georgia suddenly finds a weight lifted off her shoulders. As she warms up to the travelers and they do the same to her, Georgia finds an unexpected romantic partner in quiet bus driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis). His scraggly facial hair, it turns out, is hiding a major hunk.
Minor in plotting and scale (save for some breathtaking Grecian scenery), the laid-back charms and admittedly old-fashioned cobs of corn found scattered throughout "My Life in Ruins" may prove too slight for summer audiences more interested in explosions and robots. That would be a shame, as director Donald Petrie (2006's "Just My Luck
") and screenwriter Mike Reiss (2007's "The Simpsons Movie
") prove admirable in their aim to tell a straightforward story free of gimmicks and pandering. That is not to say the film is always in the best of tastethere is a gay joke that is wholly unnecessary, and two characters named Doudi and Poupi Kakas (pronounced just as you would imagine)but fortunately this ill-fitting low-brow humor is otherwise minimal.
Where the picture really finds its focus is in protagonist Georgia, played splendidly by Nia Vardalos. She is the anchor from which all other characters and subplots hang, and it is her path toward loosening up and connecting in an emotional way with her exotic surroundings and tour group that makes the 98-minute running time worthwhile. As Georgia expands her horizons and grows a newfound tolerance and understanding, the ragtag travelers, initially seen as stereotypesthey are, after all, viewed primarily through Georgia's eyesgrow into actual sympathetic people. Thus, the film becomes something of an observant ensemble piece, in addition to being a travelogue and a bittersweet comedy.
Making the biggest impressions on Georgia's outlook are vacationer Irv, still coming to terms with the passing of his beloved wife (Rita Wilson), and Poupi, whose reserved demeanor hides a wisdom that she desperately needs. Georgia's and Poupi's relationship, if not as substantive as it could be, is made satisfying by the winning chemistry between Vardalos, expressing intelligence, vulnerability and unassuming beauty, and Alexis Georgoulis, in his formidable English-language acting debut. As Irv, Richard Dreyfuss (2008's "W.
") overdramatizes his role at times, but does receive an effective arc that doesn't feel the need to overexplain itself. Also worth noting is Rachel Dratch (2006's "Click
"), a brilliant, undervalued comedienne who underplays as proudly-ovulating tourist Kim while still earning the bulk of laughs from her line deliveries and facial expressions alone. It is nice to see Dratch getting more to work with than just a brief, broad cameo, which is usually the case.
Visiting the Parthenon near the end of "My Life in Ruins," Georgia throws all her usual dry, factual data aside and tells her group that her favorite thing about this ancient site is listening to the wind blow between the columns. The rest of the group silently hears exactly what she means. It is a small, yet touching, moment that narrows in on Georgia's journey toward learning about who she is and what she wants in life. In arriving at this point, the film's narrative occasionally meanders, prematurely solving many of the story's conflicts before the finale and then relying on a few too many montages. Nevertheless, there is an endearing quality to a film that is unhurried and sweet without any grandiose pretenses. What "My Life in Ruins" has to offer may not please everyone, but its intended audience knows who they are and will undoubtedly eat it up.