My Life in Ruins: A Film Title or a Cry for Help?

life-ruinsMy Life in Ruins was the Tribeca Film Festival's closing night offering. If favors weren't exchanged for this tepid comedy to garner this honored spot, someone working for TFF has negligible taste -- or even worse, a rather low opinion of the audience the festival is attracting. Nia Vardalos, best known as the writer/star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, appears here, with a bit less charm, as Georgia, an American academic in search of her "mojo." Instead, she winds up working in Greece as a low-rent tour guide who bores all who sign up for her four-day ride to historical landmarks. Georgia's problem: she loves the Acropolis and other ruins but detests the ways of the Greeks. She also hates the un-air-conditioned bus she must drive about in. She dislikes her heavily bearded driver who "apparently" speaks no English. And she saves her greatest distaste for the folks who sign up for the ride. The Americans are either complete idiots or businessmen who won't stop making deals on their cell phones. The Australians speak in an incomprehensible slang and won't stop drinking beer. The Canadians are timid. The Spanish are divorcees looking for hot men. And the Brits are uptight. Add a genial kleptomaniac and a chronic jokester to the mix, and Georgia is about to throw in the towel. Sadly, if the folks in charge of this production had excavated the screenplay a bit more, they would have unearthed a charming film within. And a hugely funnier one. The premise is sound. An uptight scholar, who hasn't had sex in over a year, slowly learns to love life after being bombarded by tourists who hanker more for souvenirs and ice cream than for architectural trivia. So who's responsible for transforming this romantic comedy into a dastardly washout? There are several possible culprits. Possibly Vardalos, who is not a subtle actress. She appears to lack the capability of shading her character's transitions. Her Georgia is either uptight and unforgiving or gregariously embracing the world and the orgasm. Here she a mugger, not a thespian. Screenwriter Mike Reiss might be at fault, although you hope not. After all, his credits include some of the funniest shows on TV: Queer Duck, The Simpsons, The Critic, and It's Gary Shandling's Show. But maybe he's forgotten how to write for humans. I suspect, though, that one of Hollywood's most maladroit directors, Daniel Petrie, has bungled this whole shebang. His extremely broad comedies have always been hit-and-miss affairs, and even the hits (e.g. Miss Congeniality; Grumpy Old Men) contain a whole lot of room for improvement. The misses (e.g. Welcome to Mooseport; Richie Rich; My Favorite Martian), however, are unbearable viewing. Why? Wherever a more gifted director would advise his cast to hold back, Petrie apparently orders his actors to make complete asses of themselves. Two scenes immediately come to mind. In one, Georgia needs to mail a letter, and the slovenly Greek manager of a sleazebag hotel offers free postage to her if she'll go to bed with him. In the second, an overweight American lad, who is unknowingly wearing a T-shirt that in Greek offers his butt to any taker, is being wooed by two horny gay men. If handled quickly and without slamming you over the head with a sledgehammer, both episodes would have been quite amusing. But Petrie extends them with close-ups of the manager and the gays licking their lips and making sucking noises and God knows what. You immediately want to take a shower instead of laugh. So what you wind up with is a comedy in ruins with the one exception of Richard Dreyfus, who plays the widowed jokester with such class and warmth, you can almost start liking American tourists again. Almost. - Brandon Judell brandon.jpgMr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.