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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

My Life in Ruins (aka Driving Aphrodite) (review)

Big Fat Greek Nightmare

liferuins

What we have here is a big fat crying shame. I like Nia Vardalos. I like how her My Big Fat Greek Wedding became a surprise hit a few years back by refusing to give in to certain stereotypes that Hollywood bandies about, such as that women who are larger than a size two don’t exist, and certainly wouldn’t be worthy of or interested in love and romance and sex and having a fun and exciting life even if they did exist.

So it pains me to say that this, My Life in Ruins — which is all, “Ohmigiod, that girl from My Big Fat Greek Wedding gets to go to Greece at last *sigh*!” — is a steaming pile of stereotypes and sitcomery, a pathetic excuse for a comedy, a romance, and a movie. If you chanced to be acurst enough to have caught even a single episode of the TV spinoff from Wedding, the unimaginatively dubbed My Big Fat Greek Life, then you already have a general idea of what Ruins looks like: it’s the ruined version of what could have been a simple but charming movie. Ruins is populated by supposed adults who behave as if they are moronic children, it’s obvious and banal, its idea of humor is embarrassing, and it’s overseen by the tediously typical misogynistic concept that any woman who’s dissatisfied with her life must simply need to get laid. Because all other problems disappear if you are getting properly fucked on a regular basis.

Ruins thinks it’s sooo naughty, with its heroine in Vardalos’s (Connie and Carla) uptight Georgia, who just needs to learn how to cut loose and gets a few lessons in how to do that. But what I see is a story written by a man who sees women only as Hollywood has sold them to him. I might have expected better from screenwriter Mike Reiss — who has contributed to such subversive TV series as The Simpsons, The Critic, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and Sledge Hammer! — so who knows where he came up with this rude, annoying American trying to find herself in Greece. The joke is supposed to be, you see, that she’s the one who sees the people on the tour groups she leads as rude and annoying… except that, as the script dictates and as director Donald Petrie portrays it, the group of Looney Tunes Georgia finds herself saddled with on this latest five-day tour really are proudly dumb, proudly ignorant, and proudly indulgent of the worst stereotypes of wherever they’re from: the Americans are obnoxious, the Australians are rowdy drinkers, the Brits are snobbish, et cetera. There’s none of this nonsense that we’re seeing through Georgia’s eyes (though that’s what Ruins thinks it’s doing, I think): the film is deploying ethnic and nationalistic pigeonholing because it thinks we’ll be amused by it.

If Georgia really were the brainy, knowledgable academic she’s supposed to be, she’d know that there really are tour groups that specialize in precisely the kind of intellectual tourism she wants to practice, to the consternation of the mental midgets she’s squiring, who don’t want to hear about ancient gods and history and architecture and just want to go to the beach and shop. (One wonders why they’re on this tour at all…) But then there’d be no “funny” movie, and no quick and easy resolution to Georgia’s ennui: there’d be a subversive, thinky movie instead, and maybe Georgia would fall for the shy professorial type rather than the–

Well, I won’t “ruin” it for you, in case you haven’t already seen the trailer, which as good as tells you the whole movie. But know this: director Petrie is sort of a Ghost of Bad Romantic Comedies Past — he is responsible for such reprehensibleness as Miss Congeniality (smart, sensible FBI agent Sandra Bullock is forced to go undercover at a beauty pageant, and discovers the real meaning of womanhood lies in waxing and blowing every dollar you have on clothes and makeup) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which may be the most anti-woman, anti-man, anti-human movie ever made. And he has not redeemed himself here.


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My Life in Ruins (2009)
US/Can release: Jun 5 2009
UK/Ire release: Oct 2 2009

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sexual content
BBFC: rated 12 (contains moderate sex references)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • and am i imagining it, or has Nia Vardalos now tried to become the size 2 stereotype? she looks gaunt and drawn, instead of juicy and alive like she did in MBFGW!

  • bitchen frizzy

    She’s probably just trying to look younger by being super thin, which is what a lot of over-40 actresses are doing now. Someone gave them the idea that by looking skeletal and haggard they’ll look younger. For an extreme example, see Meg Ryan (shudder).

    Not to fault her being in this movie, though – she has to pay the bills.

    I didn’t really like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, either.

  • Victor Plenty

    Vardalos recently made some industry headlines for dropping 40 pounds. She said it was on her doctor’s advice, to combat health problems including high blood sugar and dizzy spells, and not because of the typical Hollywood image consciousness.

  • “She said it was on her doctor’s advice, to combat health problems …and not because of the typical Hollywood image consciousness.”

    i have noticed that’s pretty much the textbook response by any actress who loses weight and then gets a new part or new project.

  • Dan Coyle

    I really thought My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a terrible, terrible, TERRIBLE movie, though I found myself liking Vardalos. I think she’s still got potential, but boy, does she have bad instincts.

  • Muzz

    More BFGW side chat on size 2+ women and related:
    I was slightly miffed, back in the day, that her husband in real life was this dumpy, regular looking guy who could pass for Greek himself, while his film counterpart was the “dreamy” “swooneriffic” Chris from Northern Exposure. But I guess turnabout is fair play.

  • MaryAnn

    I bet her husband was miffed, too!

  • A Guy

    “…any woman who’s dissatisfied with her life must simply need to get laid. Because all other problems disappear if you are getting properly fucked on a regular basis.”

    It’s easy to see how people make that mistake, becaus it’s true for guys. Maybe for women it should be modified to getting laid “with real emotional connection”.

    And take it easy on Miss Congeniality, it was the story about a woman opening her mind and accepting other people’s choices. Not maintaining a closed, judgemental mindset.

    I recommend a repeat viewing.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s easy to see how people make that mistake, becaus it’s true for guys. Maybe for women it should be modified to getting laid “with real emotional connection”.

    Oh, so a “real emotion connection” makes all your other problems go away?

    Hint: No, it doesn’t. It’s a way of belittling women by suggesting the only reason they might be dissatisfied with anything is that they’re not “real women” — ie, serving as a receptable for male sexuality.

    And take it easy on Miss Congeniality, it was the story about a woman opening her mind and accepting other people’s choices. Not maintaining a closed, judgemental mindset.

    Sure, it’s about accepting that it’s okay if women “choose” to be brainless Barbie dolls, and that it’s wrong to be judgmental about the way our society demeans women. Yup, that’s totally a good thing.

  • Katie Dvorak

    God this movie was bad. I knew it wouldn’t be good but I never imagined it’d be so bad I’d be offended by how bad this movie was. I want my two hours back.

  • A Guy

    MaryAnn: You’re dreaming if you don’t believe that a MOST people (men and women alike) think that finding a life mate (crudely referred to as “getting properly fucked on a regular basis”) isn’t the lynch pin to a happier life.

    Convincing women otherwise ought not be the goal of feminism. That will be about as effective as preaching abstinence as a solution to accidental pregnancy.

    One person’s “brainless Barbie dolls” are another person’s “using what they’ve got to get what they want” (including finding a life mate and increased happiness). It’s elitist to suggest that intellectual development is all that should be pursued.

    And what’s so demeaning about working on and displaying one’s body (not that bodies are all that matter in a scholarship pageant)? That’s a pretty Puritanical perspective. How is it any different than body builders, or athletes for that matter? Are they demeaning themselves? Are men demeaning themselves when they try to make themselves more attractive to women (physically or otherwise)?

    Lighten up and let other women live their lives and learn from the consequences.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Do you tell all women that as your definition of a meaningful and lasting relationship? Smooth…

  • amanohyo

    I think that you meant the “isn’t” to be an “is” in that first sentence, A Guy. But, who are these “most people” you speak of, and how do you know what they think?

    You don’t need to “convince” women that their entire existence doesn’t hang on how exactly they should look and act to find their dream man. The healthy ones already know that’s not the case because they are three-dimensional, flesh and blood humans and not poorly-written, two-dimensional movie characters.

    No one thinks that people should be completely unconcerned with attracting a partner or improving their physical appearance or even just getting a good rogering now and then. The issues are with who sets the standards for beauty, and the assumption that, unlike men, women think of absolutely nothing other than attracting a romantic partner because that is all that is required for them to be happy and fulfilled.

    Anyone who knows any woman, any girl, any person, knows that no matter how many girly magazines they buy, no matter how many soaps they watch, no matter how many romance novels they read, (and of course, many, many women consume none those things), no matter how girly and foo-foo they are, they’ve got dreams and passions that don’t vanish in a poof of smoke when Mr. Right comes along to give them mindblowing orgasms, a shiny ring, and a gaggle of younguns. Their relationship (or quest for one) is just one important piece in a larger puzzle.

    Does this make any sense A Guy?

  • A Guy

    Amanohyo:

    1) “no matter how girly and foo-foo they are, they’ve got dreams and passions that don’t vanish in a poof of smoke when Mr. Right comes along…[it’s] just one important piece in a larger puzzle” — I said it was a perceived as a lynch pin, not the only issue. Do you disagree that a lot of people put a very, very high priority on finding a relationship?

    2) “The issues are with who sets the standards for beauty” — Extremes exist (too thin, too much cosmetic surgery, child pageants) and are damaging and should be criticized.

    But I don’t think most beauty pageants cross that line (and I don’t think a movie with a female character who doesn’t adhere to your ideal of a feminist should be rejected out-of-hand, since there are a lot of real live women who don’t).

    Take for example that contestant who got in the media for her answer about gay marriage (I forget her name). Is she an unrealistic standard of beauty? She’s certainly elite in terms of beauty, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger was elite in terms of body building, and Judge Sotomayor is elite in terms of jurisprudence.

    It’s inappropriately judgmental to criticize these contestants for something they chose to do. Maybe they will regret participating in it later in life, maybe not. (The current governor of MI was a beauty queen. I doubt she regrets it and it’s hard to say how it hurt or demeaned her.)

    From where do you and MaryAnn draw the authority to make that decision for women? Is it your duty to protect them from making mistakes? (I’d be curious what proportion of contestants wish they had never participated, 20 years later. I’d put the over-under at about 10%.)

    I repeat: lighten up and let people live their lives without scolding them.

    Does this make any sense Amanohyo?

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn: You’re dreaming if you don’t believe that a MOST people (men and women alike) think that finding a life mate (crudely referred to as “getting properly fucked on a regular basis”) isn’t the lynch pin to a happier life.

    I never said anything to the contrary. What you characterize as my crudity is, in fact, the attitude of many people in our culture: that if a woman is unhappy, the *only* reason *must* be that she is not getting properly fucked on a regular basis. Because women cannot possibly have any other ambitions beyond that.

    I can’t believe I need to spell this out, but I am NOT suggesting that romance, good sex, and a solid relationship is NOT important to most people. I’m saying that while our culture does not expect men to garner complete fulfillment from such, it does expext that of women. And that attitude is what is reflected in this movie. The Vardalos character is unhappy about many things — such as the rampant stupidity of the average person, like the idiots in her tour groups who have no appreciation for the art and history around them — that is NOT going to be assuaged by hooking up with a cute guy. But the movie suggests that it will be. Which is ridiculous and demeaning to women.

  • A Guy *

    1) Being told (rightly or wrongly) that they need to get a relationship/laid is not unique to women. You may think it is. But single men hear it all the time too (in real life and in the movies).

    Women may or may not get that unsolicited advice more often than men, and if there is a difference, it may reflect a modest difference in the proportion of women believing it to be true. It’s very common for women to hear it from well-meaning women. But again, single men and women both hear it a lot.

    2) It’s not demeaning, it’s just not accurate sometimes. Many people ARE unhappy because they don’t have a significant other. Go ask a few therapists what the most common thing single clients want in their life—it’s a relationship. Not always, but often.

    The real issue is that, in most cases, it’s not necessary to tell a single person that; it just picks a scab. People who are disappointed that they don’t have a significant other are typically all too aware of it. It rarely comes as a revelation. But the comment is really more irritating than demeaning (and should not be elevated to some sort of cultural/gender-relations issue).

    3) A relationship is clearly not a cure-all. People will always find something to be unsatisfied about. That’s the nature of things.

    But saying that a character in a movie who is deeply concerned about getting a relationship is unrealistic and insulting to women is, itself, unrealistic. Again, many people report that it is a very high priority for them. Do you think “falling in love” is such a popular movie ending because audiences can’t relate to it?

    It’s also not unrealistic for a single movie character to be told they need to get “laid”. It happens all the time in real life. Sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s not.

    4) “…serving as a receptacle for male sexuality.” Jesus. Don’t go all Andrea Dworkin on us. Straight men engaging in casual sex aren’t fucking each other.

  • amanohyo

    “I don’t think a movie with a female character who doesn’t adhere to your ideal of a feminist should be rejected out-of-hand…”

    This points to the heart of the confusion. It’s not female characters that don’t adhere to some feminist ideal that bug me, it’s characters that don’t adhere to the basic understanding I have of human beings. I would suggest that a very small percentage of women are as obsessed with personal appearance and relationships as the majority of the women in movies seem to be.

    Name the last three movies you’ve seen where a man is facing challenges in many different areas of his life and everyone he knows assumes it’s because he isn’t married. He may agree or briefly try to deny it, but sure enough, he wears the right clothes, falls in love with the right girl, and the moment he gets married, all of his problems are neatly solved or ignored and the movie just ends. Now imagine that 90% of all movies starring a man have some variation of this plot (Sleeplesss in Seattle + more clothes and hair, basically). Multiply the experience by a few hundred times and it would go from ridiculous to insulting pretty fast.

    We clearly all agree that romance is an important element in most (not all) people’s lives. Can’t we also agree that every single person we’ve ever met has had hopes, dreams, passions, and challenges that were bigger and more complicated than a penis, a pretty face, and/or a white dress? After all, as you stated above, “a relationship is not a cure all,” and a penis is not a panacea.

  • Paul

    Yeah, in ‘guy’ movies it’s the other way around. Resolving the action plot repairs the romantic relationship, especially in Bruce Willis movies. In his Die Hard movies and Last Boy Scout there’s nothing that says “I love you, come back to me” like beating up the bad guy. But at least in the Die Hard movies they didn’t pretend violence actually fixed the marriage; it just blew some heat back into the old fire.

  • MaryAnn

    But saying that a character in a movie who is deeply concerned about getting a relationship is unrealistic and insulting to women is, itself, unrealistic.

    *My Life in Ruins* is NOT about a protagonist who “is deeply concerned about getting a relationship.” It’s about a woman who is unsatisfied with many things that have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with romance or relationships. But then she gets laid, with the implication that this will be an ongoing relationship with Mr. Right, and all of a sudden, her life is PERFECT.

    I think the reason it feels like I’m banging my head on the desk here is that many men simply do not understand the problem I’m trying to highlight because they do not regularly encounter the idea that all the many things that concern them — from the relatively small and personal (related to career, finances, etc) to the relatively large-scale (world peace) — would disappear entirely if only they were having sex regularly. (Which has nothing to do with whether they ARE, in fact, having regular sex. The fact that a woman is unsatisfied about something, ANYTHING, is perforce evidence that she’s not getting enough sex.) That’s not to say that no one ever bugs men about getting married, or whatever. Of course that happens. It’s the attitude behind that, from individuals and the culture at large, that is different.

    There is a basic assumption that, sure, a man might be missing something if he’s not married, but a man has lots of other avenues for self-fulfillment, so it’s hardly the end of the world. But the basic assumption for women is that she wouldn’t even be worrying her pretty little head about such nonsense as politics or career or pollutants in the water if she were properly distracted by a man.

    I’m not saying everyone feels this way. I’m saying that this is the general tendency of our culture, and it makes for more of an uphill for women in some matters (like in being taken seriously) than it does for men.

  • MaryAnn wrote:

    I think the reason it feels like I’m banging my head on the desk here is that many men simply do not understand the problem I’m trying to highlight because they do not regularly encounter the idea that all the many things that concern them — from the relatively small and personal (related to career, finances, etc) to the relatively large-scale (world peace) — would disappear entirely if only they were having sex regularly.

    This is a little bit of a straw man, MaryAnn, especially if you put it into the context of movies. Half the “guy” movies out there are about how life would be better if the protagonist could just get laid.

    That being said, it’s certainly true that men don’t quite “get” what the gripe is… but the reasons for this are more black and white than you suggest. For a lot of men, sex does fix everything, and if it works for us, why shouldn’t it work for you (is the argument).

    You’ve said it much better over here:

    Most men have never, ever encountered the attitude that the only fulfillment they should expect to get out of life — that they will need to get out of life — will come from taking care of a woman.

    There’s the rub. The problem ain’t the problem though, if you catch my drift. It’s the solution that is the troublesome bit… as in, how do we fix it, or can we even?

  • CB

    This is a little bit of a straw man, MaryAnn, especially if you put it into the context of movies. Half the “guy” movies out there are about how life would be better if the protagonist could just get laid.

    Yes but the difference is that in every such movie I can think of, not getting laid is the guy’s problem. As in the guy wants to get laid (or get a girlfriend or even a wife), their failure to do so is the source of their doldrums, so having that be the solution is actually reasonable.

    Now there’s a whole ‘nother discussion we could have about societal expectations of men and how that would make them feel that failing to get laid is a big problem. But I totally see MaryAnn’s point here about movies where a woman’s problem is her career or family life or whatever, but hey here comes a Deep Dicking that makes the other problem go away somehow.

    In the other half of guy movies, where the problem is something other than lack-of-sex, they fix their career or whatever and if in the process they get laid or fall in love that’s just an added benefit, not the solution unto itself.

  • No Longer Trollbait

    I know this is an old post, but boy, what a classic example of how a troll can completely derail and overtake a discussion thread.
    Trolls are best ignored.

  • MaSch

    Since this here gets a resurrection: Did you know that this movie has been released in the UK as “Driving Aphrodite”? And will get released in Germany as “My Big Fat Greek Summer”? (yeah, in Germany, we sometimes give English movies another English title instead of, like, a German one.)

    My guess: The people behind this movie hope foreign audiences who read the negative reviews about this movie won’t recognize it under another name …

  • Another Guy

    MaryAnn needs to seriously get laid.

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