When Nia Vardalos broke out of obscurity with 2002’s sleeper smash “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” it was cause for a celebration. Vardalos triumphantly beat the industry odds, manufacturing a legitimately lovely romantic comedy stewed in the juices of Greek culture, gradually surviving the weekly multiplex onslaughts to become a top-grossing phenomenon.
The film even earned her an Oscar nomination for screenwriting. How’s that for a miracle? After the heat died down, Vardalos segued into the hospitable 2004 drag queen comedy “Connie and Carla.” It tanked. So, five years later, Vardalos has booked a return flight to Greece with “My Life in Ruins,” a film so agonizingly devoid of intelligence, inspiration, and surprise, it makes “Big Fat Greek Wedding” stand out as a now loathsome fluke.
Georgia (Nia Vardalos) has left her life in America behind, looking to Greece to provide adventure and excitement for her dreary single life. Toiling away as a despised guide for a budget bus tour company, Georgia has to leash her aspirations to impart a feeling of Greek history to the uncouth tourists, when all they want is ice cream, cheap photos ops, and Korean-made souvenirs.
Ready to pull anchor and return to America, Georgia finds her last group of sightseers uniquely baffling, including a Zen-like senior named Irv (Richard Dreyfuss) with a special outlook on life. Also complicating matters for Georgia is the scruffy Greek bus driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis), who pines for the guide but is unable to communicate his feelings to her during the shenanigan-filled tour.
Vardalos is a buoyant performer with bright eyes and an accessible vulnerability. She’s easy to like, but “Ruins” is easy to hate. It’s impossible not to come across like a complete bully when describing “Ruins” as a repugnant time-waster when the film is clearly targeted to a special population of filmgoers who demand only a chance to smile at something pretty and laugh at cliched xenophobic jokes. It’s a straightforward formula of broad gags and romantic near-misses that makes up the “Ruins” experience, but what I object to is the film’s creative stasis in the name of feeding nonsense to the widest possible audience.
The tourist characters are all thickly-drawn cultural stereotypes, ranging from shrill Americans (Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch) and drunken Australians to sexed-up cougars from Spain and cheery shoplifting seniors from England. The screenplay by Mike Reiss uses the bus rides as an extended showcase for his brainless, stabbing characterizations, which extends to an IHOP corporate rep who spends the entire movie making pancake puns. Pancake puns.
Surely there were funnier avenues to explore with this road trip plot, and not just elementary spasms of cheesy one-liners, cheap detours into homophobia (this is Greece after all), and Vardalos mugging for the camera in an alarming manner that suggests a total lack of confidence in director Donald Petrie. And who could blame her? Get this: the filmmaker behind “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” Lindsay Lohan’s “Just My Luck,” and “Welcome to Mooseport” made another ineffectual piece of drivel.
The lone shining star here is Richard Dreyfuss, who commits entirely to the chillingly moronic antics, coasting on a thin jet of professional detachment that could be the result of either outstanding professional courtesy or heavy drinking between takes. Irv is Georgia’s personal issues guru nursing his own gloom, intended to bring our heroine to life by imparting sage advice on love. The dialogue is torture and obvious every step of the way, but Dreyfuss’s delirium is pleasingly unnerving to watch. His obvious and shameless boredom is the best thing to happen to this movie.
There’s not a single surprise to be found in “Ruins,” making for a dismal enterprise intended solely to reawaken Vardalos’s marquee value by blatantly piggybacking off her past achievements. It succeeds more as an unintentional career killer. As bubbly a talent as Vardalos is, “My Life in Ruins” is profoundly nauseating, and grows increasingly repellent the more it pushes to charm. Greece deserves a better travelogue than this, and a better spokeswoman than Nia Vardalos.