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Don't let Nia Vardalos pull a fast one on you. Her new movie My Life in Ruins may look like it's just My Big Fat Greek Vacation, like it might share some of My Big Fat Greek Wedding's surprising charm and gentle wit and universally endearing observations about wacky families. And though Vardalos has slimmed down and gotten highlights and tooth veneers since she became an unexpected celebrity with her 2002 hit, she's still trying to be the gawky wallflower who deserves to be picked up and loved by a big strong man.
Don't be fooled. My Life in Ruins is as torturously mediocre as Wedding was winning, an unending collection of hackneyed stereotypes about Americans, Brits, Spaniards, Canadians, Greeks, old people, gay people, teenagers and anyone else who can have an obvious joke made at their expense. Ostensibly about Georgia (Vardalos) regaining her Greek mojo "kefi" after settling for a frustrating career as a cut-rate tour guide, Ruins is really just a long traipse through one unfunny setpiece after another, with some maudlin emotions thrown in once in a while on cue. If you think it's bad when Richard Dreyfuss gets stuck with a Viagra joke, just wait until a teenage boy is accosted by a pack of gay men who misread his T-shirt as a come on. This all happens around the time the kleptomaniac granny joke is trotted out for the fifth time as if it's something brand-new.
This isn't all Vardalos' fault. She didn't write this screenplay-- Mike Reiss gets the dubious honors for that one-- and offers a voiceover narration that captures some of the warmth that the crude humor is missing. But this is her star vehicle--it's hard to imagine the movie getting made without her-- and she allowed the movie to go forward with jokes about Greek characters named Poupi Kakas and a scene in which a dead wife returns as a ghost, played by Rita Wilson. Aside from the tourist cliches, including an ugly American played at least energetically by Rachel Dratch, there's Dreyfuss doing his best as Irv the goofy widower, who makes bad jokes and annoys Georgia to no end until-- gasp!-- he reveals his secret pain over losing his wife. Also getting some extra screentime is the aforementioned bus driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis), who, because he is the only straight single man on the bus who isn't obsessed with an IHOP franchise, winds up as a love interest for the slowly thawing Georgia.
There's nothing wrong with this kind of comedy, really, if you're in it for the easy jokes and the change to gasp over some Greek scenery, which isn't ruined by the otherwise lackadaisical direction form Donald Petrie. The film's vibe is genial and uplifting for the most part, homophobia aside, and who doesn't want to fantasize that, on a bus tour that otherwise seems unpromising, some lifelong friendships can emerge? But there's no reason to watch this movie when it's all done better in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or in virtually any other movie in which someone gets their groove back. The primary crime of My Life in Ruins isn't that it's unoriginal, but that it doesn't even try.