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Move over, superhero tentpoles, there’s a new franchise in town. At least, that’s the implication behind the existence of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.” When the preceding entry became a breakout hit in 2002 — five years after its writer and star Nia Vardalos launched it as a one-woman play — “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” addressed a unique corner of the marketplace. The cheery comedy succeeded at putting an underrepresented type of American family into a familiar mold. Resurrected its massive, eternally squabbling family in the sequel opening this week, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” also does that, with the same mixed bag of jokes and sentimental moments. No matter its shortcomings, the material’s fixed nature feels oddly comforting, even if that same ingredient makes the whole endeavor pretty simple.
By revisiting the same tight-knit group of characters for similar circumstances more than a decade later, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” is like another entry in Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy by way of Nora Ephron: a family saga nearly 20 years in the making about strong-willed women with pretty standard intergenerational problems. Of course there’s another lavish wedding, and intense archetypes either celebrating or questioning their heritage, but it’s hard to imagine any version of this series diverging from that pattern without abandoning its own sturdy roots.
Aside from one new character, everyone has essentially been frozen in time, plus or minus a few wrinkles and grey hairs. There’s Toula (Vardalos), currently settled into the working class life and motherhood where the last movie left her, alongside her non-Greek husband Ian (John Corbett), a teacher. Their daughter, briefly glimpsed in the last movie’s prologue as a six-year-old, has blossomed into rebellious teen Paris (Elena Kampouris, a feisty discovery), who’s encountering a familiar set of issues. At 18, she suffers from the same mixture of embarrassment and frustration over her invasive, judgmental extended family that Toula faced before. “Why do you want to leave me?” Toula asks her daughter as she looks into college out of state. But Toula’s contorted expressions suggests she already knows the answer from experience.
Toula’s parents, the aggressively proud Gus (Michael Constantine) and fawning Maria (Lanie Kazan) haven’t changed a bit, nor has the rest of the massive ensemble: Domineering Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin) remains the most reliable figure of comic relief, matched only by her flirty daughter Nikki (Gia Carides); Joey Fatone once again surfaces as thuggish cousin Angelo, who struts around with his brother Nick (Louis Mandylor) playfully threatening anyone who isn’t a blood relative. With so many people in play, it’s a wonder that Vardalos’ screenplay doesn’t shortchange any of them. Then again, with character types this thin, it doesn’t take much.
The overarching gag of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and now its sequel, finds the entire family moving like a herd from place to place, squabbling and rejoicing at once. In the sequel, they crash Paris’ college admissions fair and challenge a recruiter from every angle. They argue and gossip about her date to the prom, Toula’s marriage problems, and nearly every other major plot point in the movie. Gus hasn’t stopped proclaiming his hyperbolic pride for the domination of Greek culture (“the Greeks invented Italy”), but the movie’s real testament to that legacy is the range of colorful personality types that fill the frame.
About Gus: In the midst of a misguided attempt to learn how to use the family computer, he uncovers an old document that proves his marriage was never finalized. The contrast between his baffled response and Maria’s amusement over the realization that she’s raised a massive family out of wedlock (“I’m a hippie!”) epitomizes the main sense of humor. Needless to say, the latest Greek wedding on the books is theirs, providing yet another sitcom-ready setup to push the action along.
While it’s mainly a regurgitation of the same kooky gang, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” hardly registers as a “Fuller House”-level misstep. Director Kirk Jones (“What to Expect When You’re Expecting”) directs with a flat visual style that calls into the question the need for this series on the big screen, but Vardalos’ script hits on plenty of poignant moments that build off existing tensions from the earlier entry. With family restaurant Dancing Zorba’s still going strong, Toula drops by to dust off her old glasses and think back to earlier times. In a voiceover, she explores “the sense that we just got stuck,” an assertion that turns the plot’s redundant qualities into a keener statement on the repetitive nature of adulthood.
Which isn’t to say that everything works. Far from it. Subplots veer around and sometimes get abandoned entirely; some performances go broad where others go small, creating the sense of several tones clashing at once. (This was also an issue in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”) The overly earnest moments lack the depth of the overall narrative, and the generally giddy air shortchanges the more dramatic elements in play — especially the possibility that Toula’s marriage is on the rocks.
Needless to say, even when it’s something of a mess, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” never drags. With so many personalities colliding at once, the movie hardly lingers too long on a single punchline before moving on. Its massive cast would work much better on television today, where individual stories could receive the space they deserve. And plenty of them deserve it. The short-lived Grandmother Yiayia (Bess Meisler), the family’s silent, wandering matriarch, is a great figure of slapstick who could carry her own spin-off. Gus’ own confidence in the secrets to daily life (he still thinks Windex can heal all wounds) never ceases to amuse. Toula grapples with the same bullies she faced in middle school (who teased her in the first film by calling her Moussaka lunch “moose caca”); now, they’re a bunch of suburban housewives.
With this kind of melting pot humor, the series offers a unique challenge to the market standard for bland, formulaic middlebrow entertainment. Vardalos’ script doesn’t work overtime to rejuvenate this situation so much as she gives it a minor upgrade. Despite some clumsy moments, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” handily revives the first movie’s appeal. In light of its lasting popularity, it’s easy to forget that “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” never aimed for much more than providing a breezy distraction for an underserved niche audience; the sequel follows suit.
So the wedding happens and everyone’s generally content, but one element has shaken up the situation with an underlying melancholy. Toula remains stuck at home in her drab routine, even as she puts faith in her daughter to go to college and find her way in a bigger world. By making peace with her boundaries, Toula embodies the limited potential of this story. The only thing that’s changed about the universe of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is that it has nowhere left to go, at least until Paris ties the knot.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” opens nationwide this week.