Muriel's Wedding (Australia, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The previews for Muriel's Wedding liken this latest Australian import to two of its predecessors, Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. These are inaccurate, not to mention misleading, comparisons. Those expecting something light and airy from this tragic-comedy are in for an unpleasant surprise, for, while Muriel's Wedding has its moments of exhilarating humor, it is, as often as not, downbeat and even mean-spirited.

Perhaps the best recent antecedent to Muriel's Wedding is Proof. Both films are from House/Moorhouse productions (writer/director P.J. Hogan is married to co-producer Jocelyn Moorhouse), and, while this film lacks Proof's seamless marriage of comedy and drama, there are distinct similarities in tone and pacing. Muriel's Wedding could easily be viewed as a social commentary thinly disguised as something a little less pretentious. Certainly, one is more likely to emerge from this motion picture with a less upbeat attitude than the one resulting from Ballroom or Priscilla.

Muriel Heslop (the vibrant, energetic Toni Collette) is a hopeless romantic. She spends her days locked in her bedroom, listening to Abba songs and dreaming of the day she'll be able to put on a wedding dress. Her walls are covered with momentos of her two favorite things in life: posters of the singing group and pictures of brides-to-be. Part of her reason for living in a fantasy world is that her family life is so depressing. Her brothers and sisters spend all day lounging in front of the television. Her mother (Jeane Drynan) is oblivious to the goings-on around her, and her father (Bill Hunter) doesn't miss any opportunity to brand Muriel as "useless." In fact, he derides her as the most useless of his children. On top of that, her bitchy friends call her an embarrassment and announce that they don't want her accompanying them on a vacation.

Muriel takes all this to heart and decides that the only way to change her life is to leave the town of Porpoise Spit and find a man. To this end, she follows her friends to the resort of Hibiscus Island. Once there, she encounters Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), an old school chum. In this wild party girl, Muriel discovers something she has never before had -- a real friend, someone who actually cares about her.

One of the most pleasant aspects of Muriel's Wedding is the distinctly unconventional third act. No one seeing this movie will confuse it with a Hollywood picture, as it continually flouts the "feel good" formulas that typically characterize this sort of romantic comedy. The ending is far-from-perfect, but it's a great deal better than several obvious alternatives.

Nevertheless, parts of Muriel's Wedding are heavy-handed and, as a result, needlessly uncomfortable to view. There are times when Hogan almost seems to enjoy belittling and degrading Muriel. While it's necessary to understand her low self-image, the director goes to excessive, almost-sadistic, lengths to get his point across. On these occasions, the film becomes a little difficult to endure.

Balancing these moments are some high-energy scenes, including a wonderful lip-synch of Abba's "Waterloo" by Muriel and Rachel, Muriel trying on wedding dresses to the tune of "Dancing Queen", and an almost-sex scene featuring sofa cushions being unzipped instead of skirts. The soundtrack, featuring at least five Abba songs, is effectively energetic, and includes a Peter Best- arranged instrumental version of "Dancing Queen" performed by a full orchestra.

Those who rely on Miramax's ads to prepare them for Muriel's Wedding may be disappointed, but that's not the film's fault. Muriel's Wedding isn't a perfect comedy, tragedy, or drama, but it contains enough original elements of each to make it worth a look. Ultimately, however, individual enjoyment of this picture may be in direct proportion to a viewer's ability to tolerate Abba's omnipresent music.

Muriel's Wedding (Australia, 1994)

Director: P.J. Hogan
Cast: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Hunter, Jeane Drynan, Gennie Nevinson, Pippa Grandison, Sophie Lee
Screenplay: P.J. Hogan
Cinematography: Martin McGrath
Music: Peter Best and Abba
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1