I Hate Valentine's Day -- Film Review

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Although the legions of actors and writers dreaming of their big score won't have much sympathy for Nia Vardalos, her predicament can't be easy. When your very first movie (that would be "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") became perhaps the biggest sleeper hit in history, with worldwide grosses topping $360 million, what can you possibly do for an encore?

Vardalos realizes she never will top that movie's success, as she's acknowledged with refreshing candor in interviews. Her subsequent ventures, including "Connie and Carla," the TV version of "Greek Wedding" and this summer's boxoffice disappointment "My Life in Ruins," only proved the obvious truism that blockbusters are notoriously difficult to duplicate.

"I Hate Valentine's Day," which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival and will open next week in theaters, will not mark a sudden change in Vardalos' fortunes. This time she not only stars and wrote the screenplay but also makes her directorial debut. She will not be a threat to Woody Allen anytime soon, but some of her fans will find this romantic comedy endearing. Vardalos reteams with "Greek Wedding" co-star John Corbett, and they demonstrate that their chemistry in that earlier movie was no fluke.

As the title hints, Vardalos set out to undermine the commercialization of romance that makes so many people feel inadequate. Her character, Genevieve, runs a flower shop in Brooklyn, and while she makes her living catering to people's romantic fantasies, she is not buying the mythology. In her personal relationships, Genevieve has a "five-date" rule, which means she breaks off every budding romance after five dates, before the fun has gone out of the fling and anyone gets hurt. Of course, her rule is tested when she meets Greg (Corbett), a disenchanted lawyer who is opening a tapas bar in the neighborhood. Greg has a rather melancholy history with women, so he's receptive to Genevieve's happy-go-lucky formula. Eventually, both have to break their self-destructive patterns before they can connect.

What is the reason for Genevieve's refusal to commit? Any student of Psychology 101 will guess it has something to do with an untrustworthy father, and indeed Dad is the movie's Rosebud. Although the Freudian back story is simplistic, the scene when Genevieve finally confronts her philandering father is one of the movie's most effective because it's surprisingly understated.

Directing herself, Vardalos isn't objective enough about her own performance. Although she's inherently likable, she smiles too incessantly during the first half of the movie; a more rigorous director might have convinced her that less is more. Although "Ruins" was slammed by critics, director Donald Petrie actually did a good job of making the most of Vardalos' innate charm by encouraging her to be more bedraggled and less perky.

The strength of Vardalos' movies is that she loves all of her fellow actors and allows large ensembles to flourish. The supporting players in "Valentine's Day" are delightful: Zoe Kazan as Genevieve's dreamy young friend, Jay O. Sanders as a weary delivery man with his own wisdom about relationships, and Gary Wilmes as Greg's piggish pal deserve special praise. All in all, Vardalos conveys a most appealing sense of community.

Although the movie was clearly made on the cheap, cinematography, sets and costumes belie the modest budget. No one will be thunderstruck by the insights buried in "Valentine's Day," but couples seeking romantic fluff probably will find just enough humor and heart to satisfy them.

Opens: Friday, July 3 (IFC Films)
Cast: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Stephen Guarino, Amir Arison, Zoe Kazan, Gary Wilmes, Mike Starr, Rachel Dratch, Jay O. Sanders
Director-screenwriter: Nia Vardalos
Story by: Nia Vardalos, Stephen David, Ben Zook
Producers: William Sherak, Jason Shuman, Madeleine Sherak
Executive producers: Dominic Ianno, Michael Gallant
Director of photography: Brian Pryzpek
Production designer: Dara Wishingrad
Music: Keith Power
Costume designer: Jenny Gering
Editors: Steve Edwards, Tony Lombardo
Rated PG-13, 98 minutes