MURIEL'S WEDDING (Australia, 1994) *** 1/4. Written & directed by P. J. Hogan. Produced by Lynda House and Jocelyn Moorehouse. Photography, Martin McGrath. Editing, Jill Bilcock. Music, Peter Best. Production design, Patrick Reardon. Cast: Toni Collette, Bil Hunter, Rachel Griffiths, Jeanie Drynan, Gennie Nevinson, Matt Day, Daniel Lapaine, et al. A Miramax release.105 min. Rated R (language, sex).
What Muriel (Toni Collette) is not: svelte, petite, bright, and married. What she is: naive, gawky, in need of Clearasil and smaller teeth, any kind of job (her last failed attempt was two years earlier). What she loves: ABBA songs of the 1970s, to the sounds of which she dreams of getting married some day.
The three parts of the film are "The Bouquet," "Sydney, City of Brides" and "Muriel's Wedding." It starts with the marriage of one of Muriel's girlfriends, one of a group of blondes. Muriel has no male friends. She sticks out, Junoesque in a loud outfit. During the reception she glimpses the bridegroom engaging in sex with a member of that group... who is not the bride. When a store-detective guest notices that Muriel's dress had been shoplifted, the cops drive Muriel to her home.
Paul Hogan, who signs his first feature (he also wrote it) "P. J. Hogan," is not the "Crocodile Dundee" Paul Hogan. P.J. comes from TV and is the husband of co-producer Jocelyn Moorhouse who herself made a big splash with her unusual, memorable first feature "Proof" of 1991.
The other Hogan, as actor and co-writer of the predominantly masculine "Crocodile" movies, painted Australians as wonderfully humorous, laid-back but tough, though never overbearingly macho. He added to his visibility with commercials that depicted Down Under as a land of many blessings.
P. J. Hogan does a switch here. Muriel lives in the town of Porpoise Spit, a name which, if it doesn't exist, should have been invented. It looks like a pretty average place but the people around Muriel are a sorry lot who, to put it mildly, lack altogether the charm of "Crocodile" Hogan's Australians.
Muriel's family is dysfunctional in every way, down the visual clutter of their middle-class house. Dense-looking siblings just lat about. Sweet Mom is ineffectual. Dad, a corrupt politico and wheeler-dealer, is a born briber-cheater. There's neither love lost in this household nor brains.
The segment of society we see is one that's mostly preoccupied with fun, sex, booze and a kind of built-in vulgarity in the way people look, talk and act. Muriel's girlfriends are air-heads who often talk raunchy, as when the tearful brand-new bride tells her pals that she found lipstick on a certain part of her husband's anatomy. This must be a first in movies. Then, deeming poor Muriel to be a "not with it" embarrassment, they tell her with blunt cruelty "Keep away from us."
The movie does not telegraph its message, but makes unmistakably clear that it will henceforth deal with Muriel's transformation from a nobody and an ugly duckling (or duck, as she is not very young) to a somebody who will become, if not a swan, at least un-ugly as well as wiser.
We follow the process through Muriel's mini-picaresque adventures. She gets (in ways I will not reveal) lots of cash, pretends to her folks that she's on a cosmetics-selling mission and goes to an expensive resort. There she runs into old schoolmate, lively and promiscuous Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths, who often reminded me of Juliette Lewis). Rhonda, believing at first that Muriel is engaged and is having one last fling, says "My life is a succession of last flings." Well put.
She becomes Muriel's first friend ever, a tremendous event in Muriel's life. The two fling about (Muriel, quite innocently), do a great lip-sync-and-wiggle job to ABBA's "Dancing Queen," tell off the girls who had badmouthed Muriel. They meet again after the evolving Muriel returns home, has one look, and leaves for Sydney. Now calling herself Mariel to assert her independence, she gets a video-rental job, nearly loses her virginity to a sweet young man in one of the film's funniest scenes, and becomes obsessed with bridal gowns.
In unforeseen ways within a generally predictable whole the movie mixes comedy, satire, farce, pathos, even tragedy, and careens from one mood to the other like a billiard ball. Life is like that, without slick Hollywood continuity. It all makes perfect sense considering the characters.
Toni Collette won Best Actress at the Australian Academy Awards. As the now-suffering, now-almost childish, always romantic and nearly always (but not to the end) self-deluded, she is effective and affecting.
Gertrude Stein once said that the normal is more interesting than the abnormal, because it is so much more complex. She might have added that a normal role is more difficult to perform than an abnormal one.
Collette plays Muriel as a sort of simpleton, but she is no freak a la Forrest Gump. It may not be obvious, but Collette's role was every bit as demanding as Tom Hanks's. And while you cannot identify with Muriel, her lust for life, the changes within her one-dimensionality, and her new confidence in herself will make you root for her.
"Muriel's Wedding" does not have the technical inventiveness and amazing vigor of a recent competitor, the excellent "Heavenly Creatures" from New Zealand. Nor does it have the panache of that movie's characters. But it is a good film that, paradoxically, you can watch with both detachment and sympathy.