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What Went Wrong?: Vol. 53/Whatever Happened to…? Vol. 6 – The Curious Case of Nia Vardalos
July 11, 2015Posted by on
In early 2002, Nia Vardalos was a virtual unknown in Hollywood. Having attempted and failed to sell her life story as a sitcom, Vardalos set out to make a movie adaptation instead. Charming the likes of Tom Hanks and producer wife Rita Wilson, Vardalos wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a romantic comedy that made use of gross ethnic stereotypes in light of actual jokes or characterization. The film started slowly, but word of mouth built and it enjoyed a long run in theaters, where it ultimately grossed over 240 million dollars against a five million dollar budget. Almost overnight, Vardalos was the hottest thing in Hollywood.
When you are responsible for a film that grosses that much, you can pretty much write your ticket to do whatever you want in Hollywood. Vardalos used her clout to make a musical drag queen comedy called Connie and Carla, co-starring David Duchovny and Toni Collette. The film opened to mixed-negative reviews and grossed only eight million dollars domestically against a budget of almost 30 million. Just as rapidly as she had rose, Vardalos now began to quickly descend. Why Vardalos would follow up one of the biggest hits of the 2000s with a lavish drag queen musical is anyone’s guess.
Five long years would go by before Vardalos would appear in another high profile film, this time My Life in Ruins. Vardalos plays a tour guide who attempts to find herself or find love or something else corny like that while leading a group of tourists through Greece. Though the film actually surpassed its budget in terms of gross, it was met widely with scorn and derision. Roger Ebert called the film “superficial and unconvincing.” Scott Foundas of The Village Voice called it an “anti-comeback” vehicle for Vardalos. It didn’t help that the film opened against The Hangover, one of summer 2009’s biggest breakout films.
Vardalos’ most epic boondoggle came just after My Big Fat Green Wedding, however. Her first post-Wedding project was such an abject, embarrassing failure that it’s surprised she was allowed to make Connie and Carla or My Life in Ruins. It’s surprising she’s even getting the chance to make My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which I’ll discuss later. Vardalos’ biggest public embarrassment came in the form of a CBS sitcom that debuted on February 24th, 2003 and then quickly ended on April 13th, 2003, less than two months after it began. That project of course was My Big Fat Greek Life, one of the biggest television disappointments of all time.
As stated earlier, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, after debuting in stage form in Los Angeles, was originally conceived as a network sitcom in the vein of Mad About You or Friends. After significant executive interference, however, Vardalos pulled the plug on the proposed television project and developed the film version with Hanks and Wilson instead (Wilson, who is of Greek heritage, had seen and lavished praise on the original stage version). Some of the network interference including changing the family’s ethnicity from Greek to Hispanic and/or casting Marissa Tomei in the lead role instead of Vardalos herself. After the noted success of the film version (which included an Academy Award nomination for Vardalos’ screenplay), Vardalos and Playtone Productions brought the project back to CBS, and they now had the clout to develop the project in the way they originally intended.
The production had quite a few things going against it from the start. Male lead of the film version John Corbett was unavailable
to reprise his role for the television adaptation due to previous commitments. Corbett’s absence was especially notable as he was perhaps the most seasoned and best actor in the film. He brought a charm to the role that would be hard to replicate, much the same way he did in the HBO series Sex and the City. Corbett was replaced by Steven Eckholdt, an unknown actor who had appeared only in bit or recurring parts on various television programs. Instead of just ignoring this, the show made light of it continually, breaking the fourth wall in the process. What was meant to be a cute joke about Corbett not being in the series turned into a dumb meta-joke about Eckholdt looking nothing like the character originated in the film version.
Additionally, as noted earlier, My Big Fat Greek Wedding relied on gross ethnic stereotypes in lieu of actual jokes and or characterization. While a 90-minute film can get away with this in places, a sitcom needs real characters with real experiences and emotions in order to be resonant. This is the reason why shows like Seinfeld were great and shows like Two Broke Girls are terrible. There has to be more to a character than just being a Greek immigrant with an accent, and no amount of spraying Windex on things is ever going to change that. So after the show debuted to some 23 million viewers (an astronomical amount in 2003 and an unthinkable number in 2015), it quickly tailed off, to the point that CBS (television’s #1 network!) never bothered renewing the show for a second season.
CBS had some of the biggest sitcoms of the time on its airwaves. Two and a Half Men, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The King of Queens all drew massive numbers and continue to be popular in syndication to this day. Charlie Sheen, Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, and Kevin James are all well known comedians/actors with large fan bases. Vardalos, coming off the second biggest hit of 2002, should have easily been able to turn her show into at least a two-season project. That it ended up being a seven-episode embarrassment is still mind boggling to me some odd twelve years after cancellation. It was a huge blunder of massive proportions and a big black eye for everyone involved. There will one day be a book about the rise and fall of this project, and I will be first in line to read it.
So whatever happened to Nia Vardalos? After her 2009 comeback vehicle My Life in Ruins again failed to become a hit, she wrote 2011’s Larry Crowne with Tom Hanks. That film also failed to gain any real traction in the box office. Vardalos has also made sporadic television appearances one shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Cougartown (which co-starred her real life husband, Ian Gomez), and Jane the Virgin, one of last fall’s biggest critical hits. Recently, it was announced that she would finally make a sequel to her breakout 2002 film, as My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 was commissioned by Universal Pictures, again to be produced by Playtone.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is scheduled to open against Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice in March of 2016 as a clear example of studio counter-programming. I can’t imagine that, 14 years later, the film will be a big hit. Vardalos has had one of the strangest and most disappointing Hollywood careers of anyone expected to be the next “it” thing. With the exception of her appearances on already established television programs, she’s never once experienced anything resembling the success of her debut film. This is not to say I’m not rooting against Vardalos – I actually found her quite charming in her debut film. But at 52 years old without any kind of Hollywood success, I don’t suspect she’s going to get many more chances to breakout once again.