Even in a world where sequels to successful movies are a foregone conclusion, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 still feels like a surprise. The story that began with 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding, about young Greek American woman Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos), her extremely Greek family, and the hijinks that ensue when she gets involved with a non-Greek man (John Corbett) did not scream “franchise.” And yet it became one, not by repeating the success of the first movie — which still eludes the series — but by centering on a family just quirky enough to feel real, with a light enough touch to keep them from getting too complicated.
On the surface, at least, Vardalos’ movie grew into a franchise for the usual reason: money. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is still the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all time, by a wide margin. Later installments (the aborted 2003 CBS sitcom sequel/spinoff My Big Fat Greek Life and the 2016 sequel My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) weren’t cultural phenomena in the same way. But Vardalos, who wrote both films and finally got to direct the new one, has found enough there to return once more in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3. It isn’t so much a movie as a reunion, only compelling if you’re fond of this family and find Vardalos’ affection for them endearing. I’m fond of them myself — in the same way I’m fond of, say, Looney Tunes characters. The comedy is in their consistency, not in novelty.
The My Big Fat Greek Wedding movies traffic in broad comedy and thin characters, which served the first film well. My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s success was the kind of slow burn that’s rare these days, in the era of narrow theatrical windows that quickly close so movies can rush to streaming or on-demand services. The film grossed a mere $597,362 in its first weekend, and word of mouth slowly transformed it into a sensational sleeper hit. It even garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay at a time when romantic comedies had all but disappeared from awards races. The movie was, by almost every imaginable metric, a phenomenon.
A big reason My Big Fat Greek Wedding connected with audiences came down to the fact that it was so different from other popular romantic comedies, while also hewing extremely close to the rom-com formula. Toula Portokalos wasn’t a wish-fulfillment avatar. She didn’t have a cool job at a magazine, she wasn’t an icon of early-2000s style, and any sense of self-deprecation came from dealing with her cartoonishly invasive family, not from her own insecurity or self-doubt. She didn’t want a husband, but she did want a life different from the one she had working at the family restaurant. It just so happened that Ian Miller (Corbett) entered her life at the moment she decided to turn it around.
Toula felt actually relatable, rather than Hollywood relatable, and her Greek heritage and family gave My Big Fat Greek Wedding the kind of specificity that loops around to become universal. Who isn’t a little embarrassed by their family sometimes? Is marriage across cultural or socioeconomic divides ever that easy? Don’t the people you love most drive you a little crazy sometimes?
Romantic comedies are not inherently franchisable. While they can launch a series — Netflix’s adaptations of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its sequels are a recent example — romantic comedies generally tie things up pretty neatly when the credits roll. They’re about two people meeting, having mishaps, then realizing they care for each other. The story ends when they share that with each other. Everything after that is a different kind of movie.
With the initial romance firmly resolved with a happily ever after, the My Big Fat Greek Wedding sequels pivoted to the Portokalos family as a whole, and Toula’s long-suffering yet affectionate handling of their quirks as she moves through her life, uncomfortably close to them. In 2016’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Toula and Ian’s teenage daughter, Paris (Elena Kampouris), feels suffocated by the family the way Toula did as a young woman, which Toula struggles to comprehend now that she’s a mother herself. In the latest installment, Toula and her family go to Greece to visit the hometown of her late father, Gus (Michael Constantine, who died in 2021, between sequels), and give his journal to his friends.
A frequent criticism of these movies is that they can feel like sitcom episodes. Vardalos keeps the run times low — all three films clock in around 90 minutes long — but the plotting is shaggy and the conflict is minimal. They’re movies about people who already like and love each other, coming together to like and love each other a little more. This means viewers will probably only enjoy the sequels if they have a lot of residual affection for the original movie, since the sequels lack a strong hook — and often bend over backward to find a way to include a wedding and fulfill the series title.
That’s what makes My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 so pleasant to watch, in spite of the hokey jokes and contrived plots. Vardalos famously based the Portokalos family on her real-life family. The first film is a semi-autobiographical comedy inspired by Vardalos’ one-woman show of the same name, and watching these movies is like hanging out with her character in a crowded home full of her kooky relatives. They’re warm, they’re welcoming, and they’re very Greek. And as far as they’re concerned, when you’re hanging with them, you are too.
This is the heart of every joke in the trilogy. Windex as a miracle cure; the Greek origins of English words; a proclivity for invasive, nosy gossip; and the wily, often uncomfortable raunch of Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin, who steals every scene) — it’s a family full of people so completely, brazenly themselves that when they meet newcomers like Victory (Melina Kotselou), the nonbinary distant cousin introduced in the third movie, Victory’s pleasant refusal of gender norms barely registers. They’re a family so pushy, obnoxious, and proud of where they came from, they can’t help but respond to pride in others. Maybe they need a little nudging toward open-mindedness, but they ultimately can’t help but celebrate when others are able to be themselves. (That is, if being Greek isn’t an option.)
The Big Fat Greek Wedding films are American movies, in that they’re about the immigrant experience of setting up shop in a new country, while still keeping the flame of the old one alive in your heart. While the films eschew depth in favor of caricature, those caricatures remain recognizable: I can swap many Portokalos quirks for Rivera ones, and it takes very little editing for me to translate the films’ Greek American gags to Latin American goofs. That’s the secret to these movies. With language, food, and love, they’re always welcoming new blood — both the people who marry into the family, and the people in the audience who are invited to see themselves as honorary Portokaloses. It’s a Big Fat Greek extended family.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 is now playing in theaters.