‘My Life in Ruins’: Comedy is Greek to them

June 5, 2009

I got the impression from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” that Nia Vardalos could be a funny writer and performer. I’m trying to give her the benefit of the doubt after seeing “My Life in Ruins.”

But it’s a struggle. Let’s just say that comedy is the victim, not the victor, in this film.

You watch a movie this painfully flat and you want to start assigning blame. So you look through the credits. Let’s see:

 

Vardalos? Well, she was funny in “Greek Wedding,” which she wrote. And she’s got Second City training. (Which is no proof of anything; so does Dan Aykroyd – and he hasn’t been funny in 20 years.)

 

The script? Writer Mike Reiss is a veteran of “The Simpsons” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” Not to mention “Sledge Hammer” and “The Critic,” two underrated TV sitcoms. (On the other hand, he names a major character Poupi Kaka – then gives him a nephew, Dudi Kaka.)

The director? There you go.

 

Donald Petrie’s resume includes “Welcome to Mooseport,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”and “Grumpy Old Men.” Sure, he directed “Mystic Pizza” – but a) that wasn’t a comedy and b) everyone was so busy falling over themselves about discovering Julia Roberts that they gave the film a pass, despite its clichéd, sentimental romantic melodrama.

 

As Robert Altman once said, 90% of directing is casting. With “Ruins,” Petrie seems completely tone deaf in that regard. Once he got Vardalos in place, with Richard Dreyfuss as the jokey old codger who imparts wisdom to her, Petrie lowered his sights considerably: Rachel Dratch. Harland Williams. And significantly lesser lights. Not exactly the A list.

 

(This seems to be the month for hack comedy directors: Petrie. Brad Silberling and “Land of the Lost.” Shawn Levy and “Night of the Museum.” It’s like a plague.)

 

The story itself is predictable but not off-putting. Vardalos is Georgia, an American expatriate in Athens, who was laid off from the university teaching job that brought her to Greece. Now she works as a guide for a low-rent tour bus operation – and always winds up with the bus full of losers: the crass Americans, the uptight Brits, the slow-moving seniors.

 

The reason, her boss tells her, is that she’s a boring guide, more interested in actually imparting Greek history to her tour groups than in catering to the customers’ urge to shop and go to the beach. She’s got no kefi (spunk, spirit, mojo).

 

So her pandering colleague Nico (Alistair McGowan) gets the fun group and the bus with the working air-conditioner. And Georgia gets the dregs, the broken-down bus – and a hulking, silent driver with mountain-man grooming: the aforementioned Poupi Kaka (Alexis Georgoulis).

But … oh never mind. You can see the driver’s transformation – to gorgeous Greek hunk who will end Georgia’s long dry spell – coming a mile away. You know that he’ll help Georgia find her kefi. And the same with the rest of the perfunctory plotting and weak jokes: It’s strictly connect-the-dots time.

 

But then, so was “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The difference was the attitude; “Wedding” had spirit, “Ruins” has none. “Wedding” had Lainie Kazan and Andrea Martin; “Ruins” has Rachel Dratch and Harland Williams. You get the picture.

 

Mostly “My Life in Ruins” seems like an excuse for the actors and crew to enjoy a paid vacation to the Mediterranean at the audience’s expense. You’re better off seeking out a travelogue about Greece on the Travel Channel.

 

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