Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Life in Ruins: Ruination

My Life in Ruins (2009) • View trailer for My Life in Ruins
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for mild sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.11.09
Buy DVD: My Life in Ruins • Buy Blu-Ray: My Life in Ruins [Blu-ray]

Back in the day  1969, to be precise  Suzanne Pleshette and Ian McShane starred in If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, a routine albeit reasonably charming saga involving Americans being hauled about on a brisk tour of Europe.

This film could be considered a template for an extremely narrow subset of romantic comedies that focus on a mishmash of folks getting dragged into some activity more or less against their wills, and forced to enjoy the experience despite themselves. Notwithstanding complaints, short tempers, lousy hotel accommodations and other low-key problems, everybody winds up being best friends forever when the curtain finally falls.
Georgia (Nia Vaardalos) spends the first half of My Life in Ruins trying to
persuade the members of her hot and tired tour group to embrace her often
stuffy lectures about Greece's magnificent ruins. It could be argued that
Varsalos and the filmmakers spend just as much time trying to get us to like
their movie ... with roughly the same degree of success.

In their own way, such films are as rigorously formulaic as the disaster flicks of the 1970s, in the sense that you could tabulate the two-dimensional stereotypes in your sleep. Tension is minimal, and threats generally are limited to an "unexpected" health crisis that strikes one of the most beloved characters who has come along for the ride.

And, needless to say, the female lead  invariably at a crossroads in her life  Finds Love After All.

Call it movie comfort food.

All that said, some viewers will be delighted to discover that My Life in Ruins hasn't changed the equation a jot in 40 years. All the elements are in place, starting with the frazzled tour guide who can't get her life together; the only nod to the 21st century is the fact that the primarily American tourists of If It's Tuesday have been transformed into a more politically sensitive  although still as stereotyped  gaggle of folks from all over the world.

Honestly, it feels as if scripter Mike Reiss watched If It's Tuesday half a dozen times, modified the recipe only enough to satisfy plagiarism watchdogs, and hoped for the best.

The result will feel awfully familiar to those who regularly watch movies, and that's a problem. I also could apply the ultimate insult, and suggest that My Life in Ruins looks, sounds and plays like a made-for-TV movie with delusions of grandeur. That's a bit harsh, but it accurately describes director Donald Petrie's by-the-numbers approach to a script he seems to have found rather lackluster.

In short, My Life in Ruins feels like a job: a chore to be undertaken with great reluctance by cast and crew, much like the tour being led by this story's Georgia (Nia Vardalos).

Vardalos' presence in this film also is disappointing, in the sense that My Life in Ruins is such a letdown after the star's much greater success with the vibrant My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A lesson can be learned here: Greek Wedding was far from original itself, but Vardalos and all involved injected so much life and spirit that they made a clichéed story fresh all over again.

No doubt the same could have been done with My Life in Ruins, but nobody seems to be trying.

Having failed to obtain either love or her dream job in the United States, Georgia  a Greek-American history professor  has come to Athens to find her kefi (mojo, soul, heart, purpose in life, call it what you will). She has taken work as a guide for Pangloss Tours, but her scholarly lectures on the glories of the ancient world have made her unpopular; tourists these days would rather shop than see Greece's celebrated UNESCO heritage sites.

Having become progressively more discouraged, Georgia's various excursions become self-fulfilling prophecies: She likes her tour groups less and less, and in turn the various tourists like her less. Finally fed up, she decides to pack it in after this one last excursion.

Raise your hands, if you think something will change her mind.

Ah, good; you've all been paying attention.

For her final week on assignment, Georgia gets saddled with a loudmouthed American couple (Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch); a pair of bickering Brits (Ian Ogilvy and Caroline Goodall) who drag along their teenage daughter, Caitlin (Sophie Stuckey), like some sort of adornment; two recently divorced Spanish ladies (Maria Botto and Maria Adanez) getting back in touch with their sexy selves; a kleptomaniac senior citizen and her wordless husband (Sheila Bernette and Ralph Nossek); a business-obsessed IHOP sales rep (Brian Palermo) who can't stop using his BlackBerry; a naive college student (Jareb Dauplaise) who becomes an easy mark for practical jokes; and a beer-swilling Australian couple whose use of the English language is as impenetrable as what we'd hear from a Cockney day-laborer.

We never really get to know any of these people; in terms of advancing this film's thin plot.

Most are no more important than the three nameless Russian women  also part of Georgia's tour group  who don't speak English and don't factor into these events after the one time we meet them.

To be sure, listening to the Aussies talk is good for a giggle, and the stocky Dauplaise breathes some life into his wide-eyed college dude. (We can imagine him, having been cast out of every fraternity he tried to join, embarking on this Greek adventure as an act of quiet desperation.)

Rather than putting any work into all these supplementary folks, Reiss has focused his scripting efforts on Georgia and two other characters: Irv (Richard Dreyfuss), an older gentleman who seems somehow lost, despite his ready, crowd-pleasing quips; and Procopi (Alexis Georgoulis), the seemingly mute, brawny bear of a man who drives the bus.

One glance at Procopi, though, and we know he'll clean up well ... just as we also know that Georgia's assumption  that this hairy beast neither speaks nor understands English  will prove false.

(And how many times have we seen that tired wheeze played out?)

Despite Petrie's stiff direction and the mostly half-hearted performances, this film may eventually work its way under your skin ... a little bit, anyway. A few bits of dialogue are laugh-out-loud funny, and Dreyfuss' sparkling eyes eventually work some magic of their own. And, I confess, I was delighted when Georgia finally brought a smile to Caitlin's sullen face.

That said, Vardalos herself could be viewed as another of this film's liabilities. Her performance is stiff and mannered, and she works her character with the same false cheerfulness that initially makes Georgia such a drudge with her tour clients. The film also comes to a dead halt every time Vardalos supplements the on-screen action with voice-over monologues, to convey Georgia's inner thoughts; the technique works not at all, and should have been abandoned in the post-production edit.

Needless to say, it's pretty sad when a star can't breathe some life into a project clearly tailored to her own rather narrow persona. Vardalos, looking more and more like a one-hit wonder, has been foundering ever since 2002's Greek Wedding. The short-lived 2003 attempt to turn that film into a TV series was a big fat disaster, a label that also could be applied to 2004's Connie and Carla, the only other big-screen film Vardalos has made up to now.

Sadly, My Life in Ruins  oddly apt title, in hindsight  probably represents three strikes and she's out. I suppose this film would play reasonably well as an in-flight airline movie, where the pilot's various intercom interruptions wouldn't compromise the viewing experience even a little bit.

But that's not setting the bar very high, is it?

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