POLISHED MONOGAMY

If it were possible to run Four Weddings and a Funeral, Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert through a blender together, the result would look a lot like the new Australian film Muriel's Wedding. From the first, there are two weddings and one funeral; from the second, there's the cartoonishly farcical tone and the theme of the ugly duckling transformed; and from the third come actor Bill Hunter and a bunch of Abba songs.

Dollar signs must have been floating around the heads of the Miramax executives when they screened the film, but only for the first hour or so. Toward the end, the brows of those same execs may have furrowed a little, because Muriel's Wedding has a dark side. Though it's a much more awkwardly rendered movie than any of those others, it's also a little more thoughtful. This comedy tries, at times successfully, to be something more than sunny fluff for the art-house audience. The heroine is Muriel (Toni Collette), a young woman living in a North Coast resort town called Porpoise Spit. She's chunky, unemployed, given to petty larceny--she shoplifted the dress she's wearing to a friend's wedding in the opening scene--and has a fashion sense that would gag a drag queen. She's such an embarrassment to her bitchy friends that they flatly tell her they no longer want to be seen with her. She's more mortifying still to her father (Hunter), a small-potatoes local politician who feels his spacy, slovenly family has scuttled his career. Muriel's a dreamer, fond of lying in her room all day with Abba records playing. She has only one ambition--to get married. When she tells her sad, dazed Mum (Jeanie Drynan), "I will be a success, and I will get married," it's clear that to Muriel, the two are synonymous. It has nothing, or not much, to do with the desire for a husband. She cares far less about having a married life than about having a wedding--she wants a public ceremony to avow her worth as a human being. After a particularly blatant heist from her parents, Muriel flees home to avoid her father's wrath. She ends up in Sydney as the roomie of the uninhibited Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), an old high school friend she's had the luck to meet and get reacquainted with. She blossoms as an urban single woman, working, having fun, even dating. She stops listening to Abba because, she tells Rhonda, "Now my life's as good as an Abba song. It's as good as 'Dancing Queen.'" No higher goal would be possible for her, yet she still can't shake her old nuptial urges. Collette gives the kind of performance that makes the actors around her more effective. When the other characters treat Muriel badly, Collette's mischievous, infectious grin and the sweetness it radiates make their behavior seem the more obscene. Her plain features are animated by the kind of true beauty that makes the ordinary good looks of her snotty friends seem haglike, pathetic. In a way, it makes sense that she'd be drawn to the bridal role--the rapturous, silly-happy glow traditionally attributed to brides does seem to be her natural state. Hunter, who played the grizzled, gallant outback mechanic in Priscilla, is properly odious as the disgusted Dad. As Rhonda, Griffiths is like an Aussie Juliette Lewis, minus the affectation and with twice the talent. She and Collette create a remarkable sense of intimacy in their scenes together--their sisterly bonding isn't milked, but you feel it. What ultimately takes Muriel's Wedding out of the class of simple fantasy-fulfillment for would-be brides, as Sixteen Candles was for teenage girls, is the way that the writer-director, P.J. Hogan, keeps switching the tone from farcical to serious and back again with no modulation, often right in the middle of a scene. Some of these shifts are effective--they feel like the vagaries of real life. Others are just jarring. Needless to say, the title isn't a cheat; Muriel gets her wedding, and in grand style, at that. But Hogan refuses to fade out with the ugly duckling as the triumphant swan--Muriel's doggedness has its painful consequences. As uneasy and precariously balanced as the picture is on an atmospheric level, it has a fairly pointed attitude toward its heroine--not something one expects to see in a comedy, or in any kind of picture these days. Hogan is indulgent toward Muriel when she's living in that wretched little home in that wretched little town, but when she gets to Sydney and sees what life can be all on her own and still can't give up on her bridal fantasies, Hogan starts telling her to grow up. Muriel's Wedding isn't nearly as funny or skillful as Four Weddings and a Funeral, but it can be commended for going after the same subject with a more complex outlook and a fiercer satirical honesty. Among ugly-duckling tales, it may be the least patronizing ever filmed.--M. V. Moorhead

 
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