“Muriel’s Wedding” is an aesthetically crude ugly-duckling fantasy that is shrewdly designed as a lowbrow audience pleaser. This Miramax acquisition from Australia trades on the perennial appeal of the theme of building self-esteem by showing up the people who have always held you down, and finding yourself in the process. Good business, at least in English-language territories, looks likely, with young women as the target audience.
In the most obvious terms, first-time writer/director P.J. Hogan establishes poor Muriel (Toni Collette) as, in her own words, “stupid, fat and useless.”
Uncouth and tasteless enough to wear a phony leopard-skin dress to a wedding, the overweight 22-year-old high school dropout is savaged by her father (Bill Hunter) for not even being able to type and, therefore, hold a job. She is viciously victimized by her snooty girlfriends, who excommunicate her from their petty little circle for not being cool enough. After a resort vacation where she hooks up with g.f. Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) to do a lip-synched Abba routine in a club, the young ladies move to Sydney, where Muriel spends much of her time building a fantasy wedding photo album out of shots she gets taken of herself at bridal salons.
In a series of unlikely and bizarre plot developments, Rhonda contracts cancer, which provides the chance for Muriel to care for her and thus build some self-worth; her father becomes embroiled in a financial scandal as well as an extramarital affair, and Muriel fulfills at least the externals of her fantasy by marrying a hunky South African swimmer who needs official status in Australia in order to compete on the Olympic team.
Most of the action is played for broad laughs, and Hogan demonstrates the ability to generate them, even if the humor is base and often cruel, making fun of people’s looks and ineptitude.
Visual style highlights the crassest elements of middle-class Aussie lifestyle, with an emphasis on vulgar color schemes, bad clothes and touristic consumerism. Broadly drawn, performances in varying measure manage to overcome the often humiliating way their characters are presented.
Made to look pathetic and doltish in many scenes, Collette’s Muriel will nonetheless serve as an effective conduit for the emotions of viewers who have ever felt unattractive, unwelcome and outcast, which reps quite a few people indeed.
It is here that the potential mass appeal of the film lies. Hunter brings his usual flavor to the part of the sociable but unsupportive father. Best performance by far comes from screen newcomer Griffiths, who, as Rhonda, generates real feeling and shows impressive range in her swing from wild party girl to embittered invalid.
Sporting an active pace early on, pic sags in the latter stages, as script skips around among diverse, far-fetched plot strands after the wedding. The 1970 s pop group Abba seems to be the flavor of the season in Aussie films, as another Cannes entry, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” climaxes with an Abba tune, and this one is papered with the band’s music, with “Dancing Queen” its theme.
In this season of weddings and funerals, this film has both, and should appeal to audiences ready for some simple character identification and easy laughs.