The Jungle Book
by Philip Price
What's the point? That's the question director Jon Favreau and the brass at Disney had to answer if they were going to justify the money and man hours required to bring the visually stunning "live action" version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book to the big screen some 50 years after the Disney animated version taught generations upon generations of children the bare necessities of life. What would be the point of retelling this story to the current generation in an updated form? What more could they bring to it that children might not elicit from that 1967 original? In short, would there be more of a point to it than simply showing off the technical wizardry of Weta Digital and their visual effects work? The funny thing is, we more than likely remember the 1967 version through nostalgia-filled eyes that cloud our judgment of the actual film. In going back and watching that film-the one I very much enjoyed as a child despite being born in the late ‘80s-it quickly became apparent there wasn't much substance to the story and that the film was more a collection of little scenes filled with different, but interesting animal personalities that featured catchy songs written by the Sherman brothers and very little more until Shere Khan showed up at the end to create some type of tension. And so, going into this latest version of Kipling's story that would pull from both that source material while being heavily inspired by the '67 film the biggest improvement they could make would be in the story department by crafting a narrative that held a driving force with serious forward momentum and a throughline plot that, at the very least, would add a little more significance and reason to seeing the film in the first place. With screenwriter Justin Marks (whose only prior feature credits include a “Street Fighter” film and a TV movie) though, we are brought the one thing I couldn't even have imagined to add and that was a cohesion to the thinly connected events of the original animated movie. Giving purpose and connection that take Mowgli (Neel Sethi) from point A to point B lends the film a real ambition making the stunning visuals only more of an achievement.
Much like in the many iterations we've seen before we are privy to the plight of the man cub Mowgli and his journey to try and fit in with his pack despite being distinctly different. The major details are still intact-the black leopard Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) finds a seemingly abandoned young boy in the jungle one day and saves him, but knows he needs to be raised by caring and capable parents. He takes young Mowgli to the wolves, specifically Akela (voice of Giancarlo Esposito) and Raksha (voice of Lupita Nyong'o), who agree to look after the boy and treat him as one of their own. As Bagheera states though, wolf cubs tend to grow much faster than man cubs and it becomes increasingly difficult for Mowgli to keep up the facade that he resides where he belongs. To add to this growing stress that time and change unavoidably bring is the fact the lush Indian jungle has not seen rainfall in some time. This causes the whole of the jungle animals to agree to an age old law around what is referred to as the peace rock that only becomes visible when the water has dropped to a certain point. It is at this last standing water hole that Mowgli comes face to face with Shere Khan (Idris Elba), the tiger who was attacked by man and has the scars to prove it and who is intent on ridding his jungle (or kingdom as he seems to view it) of any man or man cub that might eventually grow up to be another enemy. In executing this order Shere Khan threatens Akela to hand the boy over or witness the wrath of Khan first hand. In response, Begheera agrees with the wolf pack that the time has come to return Mowgli back to where he came and allow him to thrive in his natural environment. This presents its own set of complications though, as neither Mowgli nor Shere Khan want him to leave the jungle. Shere Khan wants him dead and Mowgli wants to remain in what is the only home he knows. It is on this journey back to the man village that Begheera and the boy are separated leading to Mowgli having to fend for himself and encountering new friends along the way that include the Indian rock python Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson), Baloo the bear (Voice of Bill Murray) and Orangutan Gigantopithecus King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken).
While my personal feelings on Disney adapting many of their beloved animated hits into live action films is that of pure enthusiasm as it's all I wished for as a child in reality it all comes down to a case by case basis-some are more suited for the treatment than others. If they were to ever attempt such a feat with “The Lion King” I'd likely write mountains of hate mail as that honestly would seem pointless, but I'm certainly excited for that “Beauty and the Beast” adaptation. With “The Jungle Book” the main thing that gave me hesitation (besides the cast being largely made up of animals and running the risk of being more of another animated feature than a live action one) was the fact these life-like animals would need to talk and in a believable manner. Walking into Favreau's film I was concerned how long it might take me to buy into this idea that these animals could speak and that Mowgli, a human, had no issue in communicating with them. It is Kingsley's regal voice we hear come from the mouth of Bagheera first though, and from that opening scene it simply becomes an inherent part of the film-a factor easy to accept and one we buy into without issue. Part of me wants to believe that because Mowgli was discovered by Bagheera at such a young age that he wouldn't actually have been able to learn the English language or even develop the typical human tongue, but rather the film is simply translating the dialogue via voice actors because what we'd actually be watching without them would be a young boy cawing and howling at the animals around him and them doing the same in return. It would undoubtedly be the truth of the matter, but that would be over-thinking what is more or less children's entertainment.
Speaking to the fact this is a PG-rated film and intended largely for younger audiences and families (though given the aforementioned nostalgia factor it will appeal to everyone and is the real reason Disney wanted to tell this story again and sink so much money into it) there are a handful of scary to downright frightening moments throughout this version of “The Jungle Book.” While it does present a light tone and alternate reality to what a young man in the wilderness might actually encounter we are still dealing in a story that features a menacing tiger antagonist, stampedes, and towering monkeys whose agendas aren't always transparent. That said, the fear is necessary to drive the story forward and to push young Mowgli to be as resourceful and intuitive as he can be. This makes clear the advantage intelligence can have over brute strength and so no matter if it makes the young ones jump for a split second, there is a lesson to be taken away from the fear that is induced. Overcome it.
Furthermore, the voice cast seems to be having a blast with the material, especially Murray. It becomes apparent from the first moment we meet his Baloo that this is very much a Murray incarnation-a version of the actor that would exist were he presented with the same circumstances as his character. He's funny, it feels more fresh than schticky, and most importantly the relationship between he and Mowgli is actually developed rather than the two assuming they'll be best buds based solely on the enjoyment of a musical number. And as Mowgli, Sethi is a wonder. It would be hard to imagine a seasoned actor doing as well with being the sole human presence on set, but in his screen debut Sethi comes off as wholly natural in a completely fabricated environment. The only things that seem to have been physically built were whatever Sethi touched or sat on and even then the entirety of most things were likely completed via visual effects. It is a mystery as to how some of the interaction between Mowgli and the animals were accomplished much less how they were able to draw actual emotion out of such scenes, but Favreau and his team have found a way to immerse us in this world and Sethi is a large part of why we're so willing and able to buy into such going-ons. King Louie and his song and dance number is undoubtedly the sequence I remember most from the original animated film and so it would obviously be the scene I had the most anxiety about here. While Christopher Walken has such a distinct voice he also manages to somehow always defy the expectations with his endearing sincerity that only he can make come through in his delivery no matter how many attempt an impersonation. As Louie, he makes the gargantuan Gigantopithecus both an enigma and myth whose mystery comes to be more satisfying than the actual character he is. The truth is that the entitled king isn't that interesting, but with Walken's interpretation and the crutch of such a famous musical number to prop him up his sequence comes to serve as one of the most stunning in a consistently stunning film.
So yes, there is music in the film, but not an overabundance. Kaa's trademark "Trust in Me," is cut from the actual film and saved for the end credits (which are worth sticking around for too, I might add) while Baloo's famous theme song gets a quick montage treatment that features both Murray and Sethi exuberantly singing along with one another. Surprisingly, despite being somewhat sparse, these musical interludes don't feel out of place or wedged in for sake of their popularity, but rather feel inherent to the characters that incite them and pertinent to the stage of the story in which they're played. What is more exciting than the fact Favreau and Marks actually chose to include these songs though, is composer John Debney's re-working of their musical prowess. While the overall score finds itself more in line with most traditional orchestral scores for films of this nature, the swing style of the songs made popular by the ‘60s version that work themselves into more of a big band feel as the songs crescendo is genuinely inventive and rather spectacular background music for what are already enchanting visuals. Despite all of this-the remarkable visual prowess, the game voice cast doing solid work, and a script that cohesively brings together the disparate elements of the original animated version-there is still something missing. With the exception of a few quirks here and there this ‘Jungle Book’ settles into a very straightforward, middle of the road adaptation that is indisputably enjoyable, but gives one no reason to love it. It is like buying a pizza from a chain restaurant and getting a free side of cinna sticks. It's dependable and consistent with the added treat of being truly stunning, but in the end it simply holds you over rather than leaving you fulfilled.
by Philip Price
Melissa McCarthy is more or less unstoppable. She is a movie star unlike anyone else at the moment and in a few years we’ll likely look back on 2015-2016 as her prime years of output thus the reason we are not only being treated to another McCarthy/Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “SPY”) collaboration this year in the “Ghostbusters” reboot, but also have the second offering from McCarthy and her producing/directing/writing husband, Ben Falcone, in “The Boss.” Taken simply as a follow-up to their last directorial effort, 2014's “Tammy,” this is a huge leap forward in terms of quality. It was a strange transition of sorts as “Tammy” was the first project where McCarthy used her much-earned name above the title to pull some strings and make a project that would seemingly be close to her heart. This could only signal that the comedy and story would be something that was carefully cultivated by the husband/wife team and would certainly come across with more of an edge and better developed characters than most comedies these days, right? One would think so, but for all the optimism I held for “Tammy” McCarthy and Falcone let me down in the toughest of ways in that not only did it not make me laugh, but the entire affair felt pointless. And so, when I caught wind that McCarthy and Falcone would get the opportunity to make another movie off of the $100 million worldwide haul that “Tammy” earned on a $20 million budget I didn't expect much. Maybe it was those tempered expectations that led to the more enjoyable experience I had with “The Boss,” but I have to believe the overall improvements in every aspect had more to do with this than grim assumptions. There is real structure to the story, actual punch lines to (most) of the jokes, and character development that felt due more to the storytelling than the improvisational skills of the actors. In short, “The Boss” feels like an actual movie. It may feel like a picturesque romantic comedy in its aesthetic with raunchy male anatomy jokes thrown in for good measure, but an actual movie nonetheless.
McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell, a self-made titan of industry who swore off family and any other personal connections due to a childhood spent in foster care. What the movie also tells us though, and asks us to slightly ignore in terms of reality while still laughing at the joke within, is that Michelle was returned several times to the orphanage run by Sister Aluminata (Margo Martindale) because no one could apparently stand her. Sure, you can't return children like you can the wrong filter for your lawn mower, but the point is that Michelle had to be pretty awful, even as a kid. It should also be noted that “The Boss” is betting big on nature making her this way as she was returned to the orphanage as early as the age of five. The point of the matter is, Michelle is clearly not the greatest person to have in your corner and the film goes to great lengths to show us just how evil and detached she can be before asking us to grant her redemption. This is a pattern with McCarthy movies whether it be “Identity Thief,” “The Heat,” “Tammy” or this latest invention. There is a trend of McCarthy doing her best to make audiences feel sympathy for what we realize are terrible people. The obvious reasoning behind this is that it's easier to make mean people funnier. This attitude gives McCarthy an excuse to hurl insults and bad mouth those around her with little care as to whose feelings are getting hurt and when she performs her famous pratfalls we don't feel as bad for laughing. It makes sense and up to this point McCarthy has varied her roles enough that it hasn't become totally repetitive, but the arc is straining in “The Boss” as the weakest part of this whole thing is that we can see the beats coming from a mile away. Thanks to the trailer we know that Michelle is sent to prison after being caught for insider trading. When she emerges five months later she is ready to rebrand herself by crashing with former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and using Claire's daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) and her troop of Girl Scout-like comrades to make her America's latest sweetheart. What we weren't shown in the trailer we already know will happen because of the obvious set-ups in the first act.
And so, story is not exactly the movie’s strong point, but who didn't see that coming? Just because the movie was never going to be revolutionary in the storytelling department though, doesn't give it an excuse, but what is more disappointing is that it doesn't utilize its opportunities as well as it should. In the beginning I fully expected the moral of this story to be solely about the idea that there is more to life than material things. Michelle is all about her money, her income, and what she can spend it on. She allows this wealth to define her as we can see on full display in an opening power suit performance featuring T-Pain that remixes DJ Khaled's "All I Do is Win," to match Michelle's personal story. It's a great little moment, comically speaking, but paired with her "Family is for suckers" mantra we know where things are heading. When Michelle is eventually released from prison and no one is there to pick her up it only reinforces this point further. A funny thing happens about a half hour in though. After Michelle more or less drops herself into Claire's already full lap she takes Rachel to one of her "Dandelion" meetings where she sees the benefits of running a non-profit that rakes in billions of dollars in cookie sales every year. It is here, where Michelle sees her opportunity to make her way back to the top, that the movie shines a light on a different angle I didn't expect it to take, but abandons all too quickly to really be a highlight or leave an impression on the audience. While what I'm referring to is more or less an out and out commentary on organizations like the Girl Scouts of the USA there is a biting satire to be made if what McCarthy's character points out has any validity to it. Michelle points out that the girls actually doing the work see none of the financial benefit while the promises of that money going back into good causes is only justified by a "social butterfly" badge that require Rachel hold a conversation with someone for a half hour. The material is ripe for mockery, but aside from this single scene where the film highlights some potential exploitation this idea is discarded and we're left with outrageous fight scenes featuring adolescent girls throwing punches at one another and Peter Dinklage with a katana.
In truth, “The Boss” is probably a film best watched with a big crowd. The physical pratfalls that are ultimately unnecessary and feel like lazy versions of punchlines would probably land better if surrounded by friends or a game audience and thus the overall enjoyment of the film in general would also significantly improve. It is only another way that comedies are more subjective than any other genre of film, but while “The Boss” seems indisputably average it certainly could have been so much more as it has so much to play with. For starters, McCarthy and co-star Kristen Bell have some pretty fantastic chemistry when they are allowed to really go at one another. A highlight is a scene near the beginning where Bell's Claire attempts to whiten her boss's teeth as she wears a mouthguard and Michelle continues to carry on a conversation with Cedric Yarbrough's Tito that is genuinely funny for the gag alone, but layer in their banter and Claire's consistent frustrations and it only adds to the funny. The film also creates a nice dynamic when Michelle and Claire's roles in each other's lives are more or less reversed and Claire tries desperately to hold onto her upper hand while Michelle's domineering nature can't help but overwhelm the meek single mother despite the fact Michelle is fully depending on Claire after being released from prison. The entire supporting cast is rather terrific actually as not only is Bell game for whatever McCarthy throws at her, but Kristen Schaal contributes a few small moments that utilize her persona well, with Cecily Strong conjuring up a character just weird enough to laugh at, Mary Sohn essentially stealing her sole scene with McCarthy, and Annie Mumolo posing Michelle's only real threat as an opposing business woman mother to one of Rachel's fellow Dandelions. Tyler Labine gets a big break here as Bell's love interest and is given a moment to shine in the films climactic scene where he delivers. Overall, “The Boss” more or less delivers on what it promised as well marking an improvement for Falcone as a director and another hit on his wife's resume.
by Philip Price
There is comfort in the familiar. There is comfort in understanding a certain feeling, but there is also peace in being able to give up control. Giving up control might not always be comforting though. It is the amalgamation of the familiar, the unsettling, the insecure, and the eventual calming notions that ultimately make the tone of “Midnight Special” one we find both comforting and grandly mysterious. Both soothing and simultaneously unnerving. In essence, director Jeff Nichols’ latest is all about tone. Were it not for the tone of a late ‘70s/early ‘80s mesh of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg it would be difficult to contemplate what exactly Nichols was attempting to say with this film. Instead, every aesthetic choice helps to inform the interpreted meaning behind the narrative. Without the score from David Wingo or the cinematography by Adam Stone (both who have worked numerous times before with Nichols) the emphasis on the juxtaposition between the mundane world of the southern region of the U.S. and the magic of Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) would be lost. The somewhat arrested progression of architecture and the numerous cracks in the freeways combined with the tired areas of suburbia and run-down motels our protagonists venture to throughout all possess that strangely comforting feeling of being lived in and yet the reasons these characters venture so quickly through these places is of uncertain consequence. Why they feel the need to put cardboard on all of the windows in whatever domain they enter or who exactly this young boy is and why he's so strikingly different from the rest of us is anyone's guess. Nichols, who also penned the screenplay, layers on the mysteries one after another for much of the film delivering one unexpected turn after another with just the right amount of answers to the countless questions that pop up. These elements of tone and style, story and emotion come together and go hand in hand to create a damn near perfect film that is too nuanced to be about one thing in particular, but rather has the rare ability to convey different yet subtle shades of meaning to each individual in the audience.
So, what exactly is “Midnight Special” about?
It's difficult to say without getting too specific or spoiling too much of the story. It is certainly best to go into the film knowing as little about it as possible, but knowing specific story points certainly won't ruin the experience either. In all honesty, the film isn't really as much about the story as it is the characters taking part in it and it is in this regard that the movie is not just relaying a certain sequence of events, but is actually about something. The trick is, I suspect “Midnight Special” will mean different things to different people depending on what point they happen to be at in their lives when first experiencing it. This is true of any film to a certain extent, but it is not one of the objectives of most films. With “Midnight Special” it seems Nichols is intent on having the plot be interpretive to the point of a viewer being able to draw meaning out of any one aspect and applying it to their life however they wish. For this particular viewer, who is new to parenthood and finding himself all the more affected by films and stories dealing with parental figures and their unconditional, undying love for their children “Midnight Special” is about the inherent deal between parent and child that comes with bringing life into this world no matter the challenges/surprises that life may bring with it. It is difficult to imagine for anyone who has not been through such an experience as having a hand in creating a life and then seeing that life begin to resemble a living, breathing person with a personality, but it is this connection that kept the whole of “Midnight Special” so vital and so moving for me. I wouldn't have bought into this aspect two years ago, but more would have focused on the coolness of certain shot choices that pair perfectly with Wingo's score to really elicit the films from which Nichols is clearly drawing inspiration, but that is what makes “Midnight Special” such an exceptional film; it has the cool factor in spades and yet it drives home the impact and repercussions of the actions taking place rather than simply having these actions take place because they fit well with the stylized manner Nichols desired.
To accomplish such tasks, Nichols first needed the right amount of talent in his players to be able to play these subtleties. His frequent collaborator in Michael Shannon was something of a given as Shannon has appeared in all four of Nichols feature films (all five if you count the upcoming “Loving”), but the best part about this lasting relationship between the actor and director is the idea Nichols knows Shannon well enough to not typecast him. Shannon has come to embody the crazy/evil persona over the past few years and he's had no small part in making that true. From “Revolutionary Road” up through “Man of Steel,” Shannon has somewhat honed that facade, but here his portrayal couldn't be further from such types. In ‘Special,’ Shannon is a father, unsure of what to do or what course of action might be the right one to take, but he is a father who trusts in his son and will go to the ends of the earth to make sure he is safe and where he needs to be in order to thrive. By the time the film comes around to its conclusion it actually doesn't seem as if Shannon has had many lines of dialogue (though this by no means feels intentional or as part of an experiment by the filmmakers or Shannon) and yet we feel we know Roy and his sensibilities well enough to trust our interpretations. Given the apparent leanness of the actual script there is a lot of room for interpretation and Shannon takes advantage of this by lending his father figure a sympathetic sternness that always emanates a compassion despite being in the midst of stressful, sometimes intensely confusing situations. Lieberher is again impressive here as he plays against the precedent his first major role in “St. Vincent” set-up. Much of his performance is also conveyed in the looks and body language of the young boy rather than through dialogue. The challenge was going to be to make Alton agreeably extraordinary without being precocious. The audience needed to believe that Alton was worth all of the trouble his father and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) were putting themselves through and Lieberher is able to give Alton the right balance of assuredness and certainty without coming across as arrogant or insane.
Edgerton and Adam Driver are especially noteworthy as they bring both complexity and humor to characters who are each in over their heads to a certain degree. Kirsten Dunst, while being somewhat sidelined in the bigger picture, has a particularly interesting arc to play given we can pull out the context of her character’s situation and assume the strides she's had to make to get to where she is presently. It is in the film’s ability to not only allow the actors to fill in the blanks, but the audience as well that makes it fulfilling-both preserving the sense of mystery around the film while allowing viewers a sense of accomplishment that, without it, we might feel less satisfied with the resolutions the film offers. Beyond the marquee stars, Nichols also can be consistently counted on for stocking his films with a host of great character actors that make even the smallest of parts feel meaningful in their scope. The likes of Sam Shepard, Bill Camp (“Love & Mercy”), Paul Sparks (“House of Cards”), Sean Bridgers (“Room”), and the ultimate character actor in David Jensen each bring a unique look and twist to their personalities making the overall effect of the film that much more compelling even when some of these actors are only present for one or a handful of scenes.
The most difficult thing “Midnight Special” was going to have to do was find an acceptable and adequate conclusion that would give audience members, no matter their interpretation of meaning along the way, a satisfying feeling regarding the mountain of mystery the movie piled up until that point. What gives “Midnight Special” the ability to somewhat evade this trap is that we find solace in the mystery. We find consolation not in the answers, but in the way the story is conveyed. Given the way the story is told we can trust that whatever conclusions we draw could potentially be correct in some fashion. While Nichols does tend to deliver more of an answer here than I expected he is still able to withhold enough details that the mystery, the joy of not knowing is very much left intact. The knowing will never be as fascinating as the wondering and Nichols has tapped into that psychology with this film specifically by flat out telling us that to understand the source of Alton's power is to finally understand our place in the world: something most of us would care not to learn. Likely extinguishing any idea of control we believe we have over our existence. And as we know, control is a difficult feeling to let go of.
Nichols takes advantage of our penchant for ignorance when it comes to world-changing revelations and utilizes that basic human instinct to make his ambiguous and sometimes outright vague story work in his favor. Nichols plays with several ideas including religion and its hold on certain types of people in more damaging than uplifting ways, he dabbles in the control of the government with the FBI and NSA playing rather crucial roles in the film with one sequence involving a satellite whose sole purpose was to detect a nuclear event being one of the best we'll likely see on film all year. The director presents caveats within the narrative that touch on the human condition of self-soothing through extraneous material so as to ignore our deeper thoughts and desires as well as what it's like to be pulled at and demanded of because one might possess a unique talent or gift, but what all of it comes back around to is comfort. Comfort in keeping things familiar and for all intents and purposes, safe. Safe so that we might survive as long as possible, but at what cost of relinquishing our potential? “Midnight Special” makes us feel comfortable through the style it uses to tell its story, but after we settle in the film uses its structure, tone, pacing, and perfect escalation of the documented events to make us uneasy, but ultimately far too curious to turn back. In doing so, the experience proves to be nothing short of fascinating and strangely, even motivating.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2
by Philip Price
It has been 14 years since “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” took America by storm and grossed $241 million domestic on a $5 million budget. It's a wonder that this isn't the third or fourth sequel to the film especially given writer and star Nia Vardalos has found little success outside of her Greek origins. Vardalos has written three features in between her ‘Wedding’ features, none of which reached the commercial success of her breakout and thus the reason we're likely back here. If you enjoyed getting to know the Portokalos clan then you will no doubt enjoy their company this time around as well. Not much has changed beyond some of the dynamics shifting given the inescapable fact time does go on, but this seems to be the major point of issue for Vardalos when crafting the script: how might one develop characters who are so stuck in their ways? To answer this question and provide some deeper insight into who these people are (or more accurately who they once were and how they've become the characters we see today) Vardalos undoes the basis of the entire family: she discredits her mother and father's marriage by revealing it was never properly acknowledged by the church. For Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan) this more or less makes the lives they've been living for the past fifty years something of a sin and a sham. Of course, Gus wants to correct things as quick as possible and have his marriage acknowledged by the church, but with this new found information Maria is eager to soak up her new found freedom and make her "husband" earn her love for him, elaborate proposal and all. Couple this with Toula (Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett) dealing with the impending high school graduation of their only daughter, Paris (Elena Kampouris), and there's more than enough material for Vardalos to mine obvious comedy out of without actually mining the characters for any real insight or genuine arc.
Still working in her parents' Greek restaurant, Toula is now the mother of a teenager who is beginning to mirror her own parents from the original film. Daughter Paris is growing up fast, hates her Greek heritage, and can't get out of town for college fast enough. The couple from the original big, fat, Greek wedding is experiencing a lack of romance in their marriage due to the strain of Toula stressing over losing her daughter not to mention her parents impending nuptials. Naturally, in the process of planning another of these titular events the Portokalos family drives everyone else out forcing them to have to take care of everything themselves. Somehow, Ian has learned to simply accept his in-laws for who they are despite their overbearing tendencies. Ian is the principal at Paris's school and so while he has more or less settled into his role as Mr. Toula Portokalos, seeing his daughter grow up and accepting the fact she wants to move away is making him realize how much has actually been lacking in his marriage. Vardalos indeed draws on some relevant, albeit obvious, marital issues that undoubtedly come up when a couple have been parents for so long they forget what it means to be a couple, but overall the focus of this sequel unfortunately doesn't remain on Toula and the woman she's become in the time between the first and second films. Having to live up to its title, Vardalos is forced to shoehorn in the necessary logistics that reveal her parents have never been married and thus the family needs to come together to throw a wedding for the ages. There is also an unnecessary subplot about Gus attempting to prove he's actually a descendant of Alexander the Great by going through an ancestry website that supersede's the more interesting dealings in his rocky relationship with his brother, Panos (Mark Margolis). Other tidbits are thrown in including Angelo (Joey Fatone) and his marital status, Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin) and her persistent craziness as well as the single faceted characters such as Nikki (Gia Carides) and Nick (Louis Mandylor) who stick to what they do best which is styling hair and being a clueless oaf. Oh, and there's a running joke concerning the grandmother, Mana-Yiayia (Bess Meisler), which is maybe the best thing about this entire affair.
The thing is, if you enjoyed the first film you know what you're getting into and you will likely have the same amount of fun with this new adventure given it is exactly what you expect it to be. There's nothing wrong with this approach given the place in our culture that the original carved for itself and it would have of course been more of a risk to try and break the formula, but while Vardalos seems to have penned this script more out of wish fulfillment for the studio rather than the passion and inspiration that fueled the original it also seems she couldn't help but to fall in love all over again with these characters and in turn she has clearly put some love and care into documenting where each of these people would be at the current stages of their lives. With the original film taking place only 14 years ago and Toula and Ian having a 17/18-year-old daughter this sequel even takes place a little further into the future than our own reality allows and so Vardalos is not only catching up, but she is imagining in a way as well. The most interesting facets Vardalos is able to explore this time around deal with Toula's own realizations about where she thought her life would go and what it has become. Given the original came out so long ago and despite the fact I did see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” during its original theatrical run, but not since-I can only remember a handful of moments. Most of those moments revolve around Windex clearing up acne given I was 15 at the time and had a bad case of acne myself. The original likely deserves a re-watch and an older, hopefully wiser perspective on the original might offer some of the same insights I took away from this sequel, but as of now what is most effective are the strands of questioning that hint at a deeper, more fully realized Toula who wonders about the difference between hugging and suffocation or if a family sticking together means you inevitably get stuck. Coming from a big, close family myself such ideas resonate. I just wish they would have somehow manifested themselves more in the narrative rather than simply becoming the afterthoughts they end up.
We don't turn to a film like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” for insights about life or for it to somehow enlighten us to parts of ourselves we didn't recognize before. Maybe we should, but we don't. Instead, the mandate of something like a sequel to a 14 year old surprise hit that falls squarely into the romantic comedy genre is that it provide enough laughs and solid enough distraction for an hour and a half that we feel the price of the ticket was justified and in the case of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2” it is, at least a matinee ticket. Vardalos and the entire crew I think realize this and in filling in this quota Vardalos the screenwriter overlaps the obligatory wedding plot with that of Paris's senior prom and her aspirations/nervousness leading up to the dance dealing with the fact she has a crush on a boy (Alex Wolff). While there is not enough of it the film also addresses Toula and Ian's lacking relationship by having them attempt to rekindle some of the romance so radiant in the first film. Corbett, while more of a minor supporting player here than anything else, is still the most charming and grounded of all the characters only making us wish there was more of him and his dynamic with Vardalos present in this sequel. The movie also finds reason to introduce characters played by John Stamos and producer Rita Wilson for no other reason than to utilize Stamos and Wilson. Rob Riggle also shows up as a college rep for a single scene that is elevated by Riggle's presence alone, but outside of these fun drop-ins the performances are fine enough as its clear most of the cast is simply having a good time being back together. It is from this camaraderie that the movie tries to teach us that the adventure of making a family is an adventure in itself and more than enough to be proud of. It's a nice sentiment, it's the same realization Toula comes to the first time around, and it's impressed upon Paris this time around with the latter actually spreading her wings to create a fine balance between those well-intentioned hugs and the suffocating feeling it's hard to tell the difference in sometime. In the end, the most important lesson we learn is that "Greeks don't creak" which can only mean we'll likely be seeing the Portokalos again soon(ish).