MURIEL’S WEDDING (1994, Australia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: P.J. Hogan
Cast: Toni Collette, Bill Hunter, Rachel Griffiths
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 79% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A young social outcast in Australia steals money from her parents to finance a vacation where she hopes to find happiness, and perhaps love.

For years and years, I had always assumed Muriel’s Wedding was your stereotypical romantic comedy.  I mean, come on, it’s got Wedding right there in the title.  The story involves a quirky young woman, obsessed with weddings, who runs away from home to find a new life for herself.  Who knows…maybe she’ll get married herself?

But what am I saying, of COURSE she gets married…once again, it’s in the title.  So, based on that bit of logic, I never made any serious effort to watch this movie.  The rom-com has never been my absolute favorite genre.  For me to enjoy one, it has to really stand out in some way.  Either it must be REALLY different (Stranger Than Fiction), or it must be a shining example of the genre (The Philadelphia Story), or it must be so well written that it sneaks past my defenses (Jersey Girl – I know, I don’t get it either, I just responded to it, leave me alone).  I never imagined Muriel’s Wedding would meet any of those criteria.  On the surface, it didn’t look like much.

Welp…I was wrong.  Be warned because some story spoilers may follow, though I will do my best to be obtuse where necessary.

The plot: Muriel (Toni Collette, in the role that put her on the map) is a painfully awkward, overweight young woman who lives for weddings.  At the opening of the film, she is one of many women fighting for the tossed bouquet at a friend’s wedding, and the look on her face is of pure religious ecstasy.  She wears a hideous leopard print outfit completely out of place with…well, everyone.

Her home life is one of middle-class desperation.  She and her family live in a hopelessly hopeful seaside town called Porpoise Spit.  Her parents are in a loveless marriage, she and her oldest brother are on the dole (that’s “welfare” to us Yanks), and one of her sisters seems capable of greeting her only with the same phrase over and over again: “You’re terrible, Muriel.”  She has “friends”, but when they’re on their way to celebrate their newlywed friend’s discovery that her new husband is already cheating on her (long story), they tell Muriel point blank they don’t want her around anymore because she’s a drag on their image.  Muriel’s reaction to this news is as pitiful and heartbreaking as anything I’ve ever seen on film.

It was around this time that I started to wonder if the word Wedding in the film’s title was some kind of perverse code word for “suicide.”  What’s going on here?  There’s comedy here, but it’s comedy of awkwardness, the kind of comedy that can be painful to watch.

Through an improbable, but satisfying, chain of events, Muriel steals quite a bit of her father’s money, goes on an impromptu vacation, and meets an old schoolmate, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths, in her film debut), who gets Muriel to open up a little.  For the vacation resort’s talent show, they lip-synch and dance to “Dancing Queen” by Abba in white stretch pants, a scene that must have at least partially inspired the makers of Mamma Mia!  Instead of returning home after her vacation, Muriel moves to Sydney and tries to reinvent herself.  At her low points during this time, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the wedding gowns on display at the local bridal shops…

The rest I leave for you to discover.  One of the joys of this movie is how one thing leads to another in completely unexpected ways.  This was, without a doubt, one of the most unpredictable films of any kind that I have ever seen.  I can’t tell you how delightful it is whenever I find a movie that avoids cliches and narrative pitfalls and continually surprises me.

For example, there’s a scene involving – how can I say this without giving too much away – two people clumsily making out, a broken window, two naked men, and a malfunctioning beanbag cushion that had me laughing uproariously.  And then, just when I thought the scene was over, a curveball gets thrown that made me gasp audibly, as if I were watching footage of a dog getting run over.

The whole movie is like that.  For an hour and forty minutes, I was completely and utterly in the dark about what might be coming next.  The screenplay is bloody ingenious.  It starts with what looks like a generic rom-com premise, leads you down the garden path, then removes the path, and then removes the garden.  There are genuinely tender moments, and moments of delight (Muriel’s reactions during her first date are sheer perfection), and one or two shocking moments, and, and, and…  You get the idea.

Muriel’s Wedding gets high marks for its honest performances and its unfailing unpredictability.  The posters and especially the trailers paint the film as an “uproariously funny” comedy, and it is…at the funny parts.  There are also loads of dramatic surprises, and tender moments, and utterly unexpected plot twists.  It’s one of the most original movies I’ve ever seen.

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