'Muriel's Wedding' isn't pretty, it's pretty good

March 17, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

When Muriel catches the bouquet at Tania's wedding, her friends agree on one thing: It's a mistake. Muriel, no fair. Muriel, you're too fat and ugly to ever get married. Muriel, you've never even had a date. What a waste of a wedding bouquet! Muriel, give it back.

Muriel, of course, gives it back because the most tragic aspect of her pathology is that she believes everything her friends say.

"Muriel's Wedding," which opens today at the Senator, is, therefore, a celebration of how Muriel comes to disbelieve her friends and disbelieve her family -- also co-conspirators in the Muriel-is-a-dork movement -- and see herself as she chooses. You wouldn't be far wrong if you sensed the presence of Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling" underneath, but one of the strengths of this antic, bawdy, rambunctious Australian comedy is that it never over-sentimentalizes Muriel.

She's not fat and ugly, OK? But she is, uh, plump and appearance-disadvantaged.

These needn't be life-ending calamities unless, of course, you live in a one-horse resort town called "Porpoise Spit," where the high school cool set still rules and the real world turns out to be just high school without homeroom. It's a universe built entirely on appearances -- that's why gorgeous, vapid, cruel Tania is queen -- and the success or failure of the individual is entirely dependent on his or her ability to get it. Earth to Muriel: You don't get it, you never did, you never will.

In any American movie, Muriel would be the comic relief or, failing that, the victim, and the director would saw away on the cheap violins until the swans choked on bile out by the pond. Not P. J. Hogan, who dares to be cruel to Muriel and to laugh at her, even as he chronicles her re-invention.

Bullied at home by a creepy father (Bill Hunter), who's one of those small-town petty fixers with a glad hand, a snappy line of patter and a putrid soul, dumped by her cruel friends and pitied by everyone else, Muriel finally does something big: She steals $5,000 from her father and runs away to a honeymoon resort, although she still hasn't even had a date.

For a few days, it's hell: That old crowd is there, flossy, pretty and "popular," and they insist on putting her in her place. Enter, stage left, an angel. Well, not an angel; another high school isolate, but one who has done the impossible. Rhonda has left Porpoise Spit and knows that cool isn't the be-all and the end-all. She instantly adopts poor Muriel as a kindred spirit and -- the movie's most satisfying scene -- she blows Tania out of the water with a fusillade of truths. Then she and Muriel head off to the big city.

"Muriel's Wedding" does eventually come to turn on the issue of matrimony as, after a few plot cranks, Muriel ends up in an arranged bond with a hunky but distant South African swimmer who simply wants an excuse to stay in the country. Muriel is his ticket to a visa. But it's really, and most magically, a story of friendship and how passionately necessary it is to the full life.

Rhonda, played by Rachel Griffiths (a dead ringer for Juliette Lewis), is tough, smart, funny and frank -- just what the doctor ordered. The two of them in Sydney finally get a life and it's a wondrous one. In fact, "Muriel's Wedding" is at its best as it chronicles the giddy pleasure these two take in each other's company and in the world of possibilities to which their friendship opens.

Alas, or at least inevitably, the movie takes a final-reel veer toward melodrama in which, in extremely programmatic terms, Muriel is asked to chose between her friend and the life anyone would die for. Her choice, needless to say, is satisfying, even if the mechanism which has brought it about feels over-mechanized.

But underneath its bounciness, there's a substructure of tragedy. Though Hogan never dwells on it, it's clear that Muriel's self-hatred is merely one more expression of her family's TC dysfunctionality. Hogan's portrait of a roost ruled by a completely self-indulgent fraud of a father -- a selfish bully and an abuser so cruel he's unsettling -- is extremely harrowing. It's a glimpse of hell underneath the frivolity, which is the worst place to find hell, but the one where it always seems to turn up.

"Muriel's Wedding"

Starring Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths

Directed by P. J. Hogan

Released by Miramax

Rated R (sexual situations, language)

***

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