I don't have cable these days. I know. Gasp, right? But the upside of this, depending on how you look at it, is that I get to catch up on lots of films that my sister rents so that we don't have to keep watching Fun School reruns and Mark Lorde concert clips on Channel 8. However much you may love "My Country to Me", watching a man dressed in a red and white suit sing it for the 65th time would break anyone's spirit. So when my sister brought me Nia Vardalos's most recent film project I Hate Valentine's Day, I was relieved, if solely for the reprieve from horrifying red and white ensembles a film by this name would likely offer. Well, 'red and white' there was not but 'horrifying' there was by the non-blinking eyefuls. Why does Nia Vardalos not blink? Actors need to blink, right? I mean...she's blinked before. I'm sure she did it once or twice in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or maybe her supporting cast - who really carried that film if we're being honest - were so brilliant, I didn't notice that the woman is incapable of blinking.
Ok well now I've gone and said 'blink' so much it sounds like gibberish, but Vardalos's performance was cringe-worthy: straight out of the Clive Owen School of Wooden Acting and Weirdly Robotic Inflection. The character she drew was so artificial and unlikely that you felt you were watching Nia Vardalos doing a really bad impression of an insufferable, delusional, know-it-all, pretentious friend/neighbour/colleague who thinks she's fooling everyone she has it all together, but is really just a transparent mess. It's as if she watched Audrey Tautou's Amélie or Sally Hawkins's Poppy and wondered "Can I do this? Can I be this beautifully naïve, refreshing, unpredictable, sage, wisecracking, free spirit that everyone either wants to be with or wants to be?" Turns out: not at all. But hey, at least now she knows.
In I Hate Valentine's Day, the annoyingly predictable tale goes thus: Vardalos's Genevieve is a Manhattan florist who "abides by a strict five-date-limit with any man, [then] finds herself wanting more with the new restaurateur in town", played by John Corbett. I'm not sure why they cast Corbett as Vardalos's romantic interest a second time, except perhaps they thought it safe to stick with someone with whom she has chemistry; in which case they were very mistaken. Corbett's approach to romantic comedy is such a cutesy, simple(-minded), every-man style, that he needs a leading lady with some edge: someone - like Carrie Bradshaw - who will break up the monotony of his 'perfect guy' shtick. In MBFGY, the cast was so full and the pace of the film so frenzied that he worked as a romantic lead. In this vanity project of Vardalos's, in which she clearly thinks she and the ridiculous character she has fashioned are enough to thrill us all, Corbett just doesn't work. She's a contrived buffoon, and he's a natural buffoon (in his gentle giant kind of way that can be charming but so was not here), and between them, they managed to suck the chemistry clean off the screen.
Well, not just them. They have some equally ridiculous help. Genevieve has two gay sidekicks who work at the flower shop with her, prancing around like little elves with predictable questions and quips carefully (but poorly) crafted to elicit Genevieve's story, reveal her character and advance the plot. It's How Not To Write A Screenplay 101. The character of the gay best friend, tired though it may be, can work, since gay best friends do exist in real life. But perhaps it would be useful to meet some actual gay people. Because with Vardalos's flat, uninteresting, stereotypically oversexed versions of the gay man, I can't believe she actually knows any. Or maybe she just shops at the same Weak Stereotype store as the He's Just Not That Into You people.
But as if they weren't enough, Vardalos doubles up on the minions with another ragtag and completely random band of accomplices who meet in a neighbouring coffee shop at regular lunchtimes to dote on the fabulous, still unblinking Genevieve and drink from the fountain of her boundless romantic wisdom, (which, it turns out, isn't very wise. At least let the audience discover the error of the hero's ways over the length of the film. Don't make her philosophy so obviously ridiculous that it's clear she's bound to fail.) Included in this group are SNL's Rachel Dratch and 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander, both of whose comedic scope is dwarfed by the puerile dialogue. Zoe Kazan, poor thing, would be right on the doorstep of brilliant if she weren't trapped in this humourless mess, but at least we know she's one to keep watching. We have no idea whence this strange group of friends came, what they mean to the hero or, frankly, who the hell they are, and if any of them were remotely interesting, we wouldn't care. But with the little entertainment value they offer, we're left shaking our sticks at the TV, mumbling "Why are you here again? Go away!" And then it becomes apparent why they're there: without them, who would comprise the Superfriends team whose escapades would throw our stubborn lovers together? In Notting Hill, it was thrilling and hilarious. In this film, it is formulaic and irritating.
The world these people inhabit is not real, and not conceivable. It's Stars Hollow on uppers, but with a lot less wit and none of the creativity or credibility. Everyone seems forcibly happy, but it isn't infectious, as a film of this nature should be. Too much energy is spent on Vardalos's ineffective, rogue romantic Genevieve, and very little is spent on anything else. The back story - her father cheated on her mother and now she fears commitment - is laughable both in how it is revealed to the audience and in its lack of imagination. We all knew Nia Vardalos was no actor, and now we're assured that - beyond familiar subject matter as in MBFGW - she's also neither a writer nor a director.