When I learned that volume three of Nia Vardalos’ film franchise was to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting populace, I admit to hoping that it would be a courtroom drama. Having married and produced offspring, the only trajectory available to her in my view, would be a big fat Greek Divorce, possibly in three sub-parts like the Hobbit: My Big Fat Greek Periousia Battle (1), My Big Fat Custody Battle (2) and My Big Fat Soi taking sides (3). It had slipped my mind that interposed between these two stages, there invariably must be a third; the pilgrimage to and discovery of, the motherland.
Of course, this has been done before in Australia, and in particular by our very own Nick Giannopoulos in Wog Boys 2: Kings of Mykonos, thirteen years prior to Vardalos’ attempt. In comparing the two films, one is struck at differences in perspective, in nuance and the way in which mythologies both of migrant and broader ethnic identity are propagated. Back in the day, “At the Movies film critics” Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton commented about Kings of Mykonos: “The movie is a more accurate representation of Wogs in Australia.” How they were qualified to render judgment given that they are not “Wogs,” is a moot point and I would argue that both films invite discussion as to how different Greek migrant communities inhabiting the Anglosphere see themselves and their country of origin and the manner in which cliches are appropriated and employed to express such perspectives.
For example, there is an element of self-parody in Giannopoulos’ film which most probably derives from the off-beat Australian self-deprecating comedic tradition. Steve Karamitsis and his friends may dress as stereotypes, express themselves in stereotypes of a bygone age (such as when fugitive from justice Tony the Yugoslav renames himself Tony from Crete because he believes that Crete is not part of Greece), and appear to be stuck in a fashion and cultural time-warp but they appear to have unique insight and adaptability that enable them to touch the lives of the Greeks they encounter in Greece in meaningful ways, whether through romance, philanthropy or sheer decency and ultimately saving the day.
None of this is apparent in Vardalos’ latest offering. The Portokalos family unloads itself upon its deserted ancestral village, imposes itself upon the landscape, and having satisfied its key objectives, these being locating the dead Daddy Portokalos’ friends and delivering a diary to them, as well as attending a village reunion, leaves, having gained no new insights whatsoever. Of interest is the manner in which these Chicago Greek-Americans see Greece. The urgency with which they run to the sea with their clothes on while on the way to the ferry would mystify Greek-Australians for whom access to the beach is a given. The portrayal of Greek vehicles as ramshackle affairs with peeling blue and white paint, foustanella dolls on the engine grille and flag bearing the Evil Eye talisman, driven by an androgynous mayor of ambiguous gender whose inane catch phrase “Number one, the best,” is particularly disconcerting as it bears absolutely no relation to any Greek lived experience.
In Kings of Mykonos, the portrayal of the Greeks of Greeks is ambiguous and multilayered. They appear to be relaxed and somnolent, but they can also be passionate, angst ridden and prone to worry. While there is a tradition of filoxenia, they do not welcome strangers unconditionally but instead have expectations of reciprocity and obligation upon those who would purport to belong. Importantly, not all of them are benevolent, nor are they concerned solely with plying visitors from the Anglosphere with ouzo, as is the case in Vardalos’ flick. Embedded within the Greek-Australian mythology of the homeland is a sense that those who were left behind are somehow “two-faced,” seeing their Australian cousins as gullible and easily exploitable sources of income. This is expertly examined by Giannopoulos in the way he portrays the inhabitants of Mykonos pitted against his main character as he attempts to redeem his inheritance. Most significantly however, he attempts to portray also how the Mykoniates are also pitted against each other, in a society where the pie is very small indeed, and division problematic. These Mykoniates are not the prehistoric peasants that populate Vardalos’ flick. They are savvy, contemporary and sharp. Beyond the cliches, there is much to be gleaned here.
The same cannot be said of the Greeks of the Portokalos’ epic. Vardalos cleverly divests herself from the need to depict them plausibly by removing the Greeks from the village, so as to be able to allow the Greek-Americans to develop the plot in a relative vacuum. Such slight character portrayals as exist entail incomprehensible, unapproachable caricatures who act in strange ways and whose motivations are completely inscrutable until they are resolved at key moments via single phrases. These Greeks are at best the “noble savages” of her discourse, symbolising the innate goodness and moral superiority of a primitive people living in harmony with Nature, gruff but good natured and ultimately agreeable to submitting themselves to serving the needs and requirements of the Greek-American consumer without establishing any enduring connection or requiring any recompense, all the while obligingly adopting the Greek-Americans’ mispronouncement of yiayia and pappou with street on the penultimate instead of the ultimate syllable.
This is further evidenced by the parallel plot twists in the two movies. Giannopoulos’ protagonist, is able to surmount the migrant barrier in order to establish an emotional connection with the local nightclub chanteuse portrayed by Zeta Makripoulia. The love story that unfolds in Vardalos’ attempt, emerges from within the Portokalos paradigm and remains firmly within it, no outside Greek influence being able to permeate its impervious carapace. Similarly, while it is revealed that the menacing old crone that both terrorises and plays host to the Portokalos’s was their father’s first love and has produced their half-brother, this news is accepted without emotion or question, with not even the hint of the implications this would have for questions of property or inheritance. After all the born to serve Greeks would never dream of making demands upon their Greek-American brethren.
Instead, it is dealt with as an acquisition: that half-brother too is appropriated and taken to America. In Kings of Mykonos, the revelation that Steve Karamitsis has inherited a fortune because his real father was not the person he idolised and modelled himself upon, causes him real pain and gives rise to questions of identity that surmount the diasporic experience and focus instead on the very idea of personhood. Rather than appropriate an inheritance that in his eyes is tainted by his having no relationship with his biological father, Stephanidis provides a lasting legacy to his place of origin: he gives up the inheritance in favour of the local inhabitants. The Portokalos’ legacy is the unsolicited dumping of their father’s ashes under a tree, this passing without comment by the non-existent inhabitants of conservative rural Greece.
Of interest is the difference in the life aims of the Greeks, the Greek-Australians and the Greeks-Americans in the two films. In Vardalos’ film, the young Greek-Syrian couple have a concrete aim: they want to get married, stay on their island and run a viable farm. In Giannopoulos’ film they seek alleviation from their economic problems, relief from blackmailing by those more powerful and an emotional bond between those with whom they share their life. While in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3, much is made upon hard work and sweat being the “glue” that keeps the Portokalos family together, in Kings of Mykonos, there is an ambivalent attitude displayed by Greek-Australians towards the Anglo-Protestant work ethic, which while acknowledging the hard work of the first generation of migrants, approaches the Helladic perspective of working only as hard as you need to, to get by, the main characters having challenged the Australian establishment and its values and refusing to be defined by them, as a way of life.
Vardalos’ major failing is the implausibility of her plot. The sojourn in the motherland is occasioned by the need to deliver dead Daddy Portokalos’ journal of his life and times in America to his three friends. The few glimpses we are given of the diary reveal that they are written in demotic and using the monotonic system, an anachronism, given Gus Portokalos’ age. While much could have been made of the mysteries that this journal may have contained, nothing is made of this in the movie. We do not know why Daddy Portokalos could not have written to his friends over the years, or stay in touch with them. Partly, because when his missing friends are located, playing the bouzouki of course, they are not given a voice and an entire plot thread falls flat. What we do know, is that his task-oriented American offspring have accepted a challenge and completed it, however nonsensical allowing them to take their place as joint heads of the family and presumably satisfy one of their KPI’s.
Ultimately, despite the heavy sprinkling of cliches that are deemed necessary by producers for films about Greek migrants to be marketable to an English-speaking market used to reducing them to easily compartmentalised and safe stereotypes, the nuances of Kings of Mykonos, allow us to consider Helladic Greeks and Greek-Australian as distinct, but indefinable entities, united in their complexity and multi-faceted nature, even after exaggeration. My Big Greek Fat Wedding 3, on the other hand is eminently forgettable.