Comedy goes to the heart of the matter
Muriel is a dag: Look it up in the dictionary and there is a picture of her. As played by Toni Collette, she’s big, pale and awkward, with a thatch of red hair that has been subdued but not tamed. She looks like a bushfire in the snow. She’s the kind of girl who excites pity in older people, cruelty in youth. When she catches the bouquet at a wedding, the other single women call for a rethrow. When she is arrested in the middle of the wedding for pinching the dress she’s wearing, most of the guests look pleased. The setting is a small north coast town called Porpoise Spit, not unlike Coolangatta or Tweed Heads in appearance, where weddings are a frilly ritual, a costume party signalling social success for the bride (even if the groom is off fornicating with one of the bridesmaids before its over).
In this setting, Muriel’s ugly-duckling status means shell never be a success. She must leave or remain the butt of the popular girls’ jokes, led here by Tania (Sophie Lee), a character who’s all looks and no heart. The heart is what distinguishes “Muriel’s Wedding” from other enjoyable Australian comedies such as “Strictly Ballroom” (also a kind of ugly-duckling story). The two films have something in common in the satirical way they view Australian suburban life, but “Muriel’s Wedding” is the warmer film. P. J. Hogan, in his first feature as writer and director, shows an affection for his characters (not just Muriel) that’s rare in a broad comedy. One is usually prompted to laugh at, rather than with, the characters in films like this, but Hogan rarely lets us do so. His comedy is always humane. Muriel’s family is an example. Her father, played by Bill Hunter, is a local councillor, a “coulda-been” white-shoe brigadier, who’s sorely disappointed in his family, all of whom are lumpy under-achievers like Muriel. Muriel’s mother Betty (Jeanie Drynan, in a superb return to the screen), is almost catatonic after years of her husband’s bellicosity. She has retreated inside herself, leaving only a vacant stare to greet the hostile world. In each character, there is an exterior comical effect (bellicosity, catatonia) that makes us laugh, then an internal quality that we don’t necessarily expect, such as big Bill’s fear of his own failure, or Betty’s deep core of kindness. These extra qualities draw us in, keeping the film’s mood suspended between comedy and drama Hogan takes big risks in this mixture, and never more than in a pivotal scene midway through the a movie.
Muriel has moved to Sydney and set up house with her new friend. Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), a girl who left Porpoise Spit years earlier and outgrew her duckling’s feathers. Rhonda is confident, brash, funny and generous. Her friendship offers Muriel a new world of freedoms – one of which is sex. The film’s funniest scene has Muriel and a young man groping on the beanbag, wits his hand releasing the wrong zipper. Rhonda has not one but two American sailors in her bed at the time: they rush to Muriel’s rescue, confusing her wails of laughter for the sound of pain. When the scene has you almost on the floor in laughter, Hogan throws the biggest curve of the movie, changing the mood instantly from light to very dark. It was at this point, I think, I decided I loved the film. Specifically, I loved the confidence of Hogan’s approach to comedy. His character are truthful, their range of gestures unmistakably Australian but rarely seen in Australian cinema, from the way Jeanie Drynan stares into space, to the obscene gestures Sophie Lee uses to her girlfriends to indicate the details of her wedding night. These are the touches of an acute observer of Australian life, rather than someone who wants to copy other movies. “Muriel’s Wedding” has the structure of a genre movie, in that Muriel’s transition to some sort of self-awareness is inevitable, but nothing else within these parameters plays predictably. Every performance in the film is strong, but Toni Collette’s Muriel is a lovely combination of innocence and guile. Muriel is a dag, but she’s not stupid.