Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Wedding Crash-Up

Film: Muriel’s Wedding
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I don’t generally expect much from a feel-good chick flick. I try very hard not to be prejudiced against any movie, but the truth is that I can foresee the ending of most films of this ilk without too much trouble. Most people can; this is not some sort of special gift that I have. The same is true of the sort of ugly duckling film that seems to come out every year or so—the film where the high school nerd ends up on top of everybody else and winning the big game/contest/whatever and walking away arm-in-arm with the head cheerleader or captain of the football team only to really end up with the cute girl/boy who loved him/her from afar the whole time.

So when one does surprise me, it’s a good thing. Muriel’s Wedding, which has a particular cult following, is not the film that I expected. Oh, it follows many of the same patterns, but there’s a much greater depth here, both in terms of story and in terms of emotion. While there are comedic moments and real feel-good sections, this film is much richer and far more substantial than the butter cream frosting promised by the premise and the poster.

As the title suggests, this is the story of Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette), a pudgy misfit with an ABBA obsession, a penchant for stealing from local stores, and a group of friends who don’t really like her very much. Muriel lives in the little seaside Australian town of Porpoise Spit, where for a young woman like Muriel, “making it” means getting married. We start at the wedding of one of her alleged friends at which in rapid succession Muriel catches the bouquet, catches the groom having sex with one of the bridesmaids, and is arrested for stealing the dress that she is wearing.

She gets out of those charges thanks to the influence of her father (Bill Hunter), who works in local politics. On a subsequent night, again meeting up with the friends who don’t like her, Muriel discovers that the bride, Tania (Sophie Lee), has discovered at least some of her new husband’s infidelities. So the four agree to go on vacation together, and tell Muriel that they don’t want her around anymore. Muriel gets a job selling cosmetics, but instead follows the quartet to the island resort, where she meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), an old acquaintance from high school. The two hit it off together immediately despite the fact that Muriel lies about being engaged to a fictional man named Tim Simms. And in a duo of moments every high school geek who was ever picked on would love to actually experience, Rhonda tells off Tania, outs the cheating bridesmaid, and then Rhonda and Muriel win the resort’s talent competition.

What, no spoiler tag? No. In a lesser feel-good comedy where the ugly duckling turns into the successful and beautiful swan, this would be the entire film, but in Muriel’s Wedding, we’re just half an hour in. That moment of triumph as the two lip synch to an ABBA song while dressed in 1970s-style white outfits that would serve as the climax to most other films of this type instead serves only to get us to the end of the first act. See? Substance.

Rather than suffer the confrontation of admitting that she spent her family’s entire life savings on her trip, Muriel instead moves to Sydney with Rhonda and gets a job in a video rental shop, and changes her name to Mariel to reflect essentially a new start in life. She starts to have an actual life, even dating one of the customers, until one night Rhonda discovers that she has no feeling in her legs. The source is a cancerous tumor on her spine. Around this time, Rhonda also discovers that “Tim Simms” doesn’t really exist and Muriel/Mariel has been lying to her the whole time.

But even this recap is glossing over a lot of what goes on in this story. I’ve completely ignored the abusive treatment of Muriel and her whole family by her domineering father, his marital infidelities, and the rather shocking but inevitable suicide that takes place at one point. I’ve only touched on Rhonda’s health problems, which continually plague her. I’ve left out the many growing pains that Muriel experiences, and in fact, I’ve completely ignored her wedding, which she agrees to in desperation for an athlete who wants to compete for the Australian swimming team and needs something like citizenship. I’ve also ignored Muriel’s obsession with wedding dresses.

While it may be billed as a feel-good comedy, a romance, and a chick flick—and in many ways Muriel’s Wedding is all three of these things—it is truly a coming of age story for Muriel. Emotionally, throughout the film, Muriel takes baby steps forward to claim her independence and to assert herself as more than the nothing her four evil not-friends declare her to be early in the film. Set against her are nearly constant trials that push her back. But she continues to fight her way forward, continues to struggle, continues to become what she wants to become instead of what others think or demand she should be.

In the end, the film is an uplifting one, but it’s a painful ride getting there. In many ways, it’s the pain that makes this particular journey worth it. It’s a truly magnificent performance by Toni Collette, who slabbed on 40 pounds in a few weeks for the role. For me, though, it was a new way to see Rachel Griffiths, who should really do more film work. It’s also another great film performance from Bill Hunter, who was pretty much grand in every film I’ve seen him in.

Once again, I’ve got a film that I’d have never have watched without being prodded into it, and once again, I’ve walked away from it happy to have seen it. Don’t buy the hype of the movie poster, and don’t let its classification as a rom-com throw you; Muriel’s Wedding is a nuptial event you want to attend. This is true despite the almost all-ABBA soundtrack.

Why to watch Muriel’s Wedding: A far more powerful and interesting movie than you’d guess.
Why not to watch: If you’re expecting fluff and brain candy, you ain’t getting it here.

7 comments:

  1. I've never seen this film (very bad of me, being Australian, haha) but have always wanted to, especially now since the passing of Bill Hunter. And everyone, and I mean everyone, will always quote the one line:
    "You're terrible, Muriel!"

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  2. You've somewhat inspired me to do my own "Netflix" type reviews. Any film I see on Netflix Instant - I'm reviewing.

    Great review here - perhaps I need to check this out :D

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  3. I'm learning over and over that moving outside of the comfort zone is really worth it. Sometimes you get burned, but sometimes you get surprised in a really good way.

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  4. I've found so many Australian films that I like, that I've never heard of, that I have high expectations every time that I start one. Maybe just mostly the good ones make their way up to the northern hemisphere.

    Rachel Griffiths has been in "Brothers and Sisters" for four seasons now. Maybe that takes up most of her time. I've never seen the show, but I've just read a couple of good reviews, so maybe I'll check it out.

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  5. I know Rachel Griffiths does a lot of television--she was also in Six Feet Under. However, I no longer have cable or satellite, so the only television I watch, I watch online, and I really only watch Project Runway (due to my undying man-crush on Tim Gunn). Since 99% of what I watch is film, I'd like to see her more on the big screen.

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  6. If someone asked me what my favorite chick flick is I'd have to say "Muriel's Wedding." If someone asked me to justify liking a chick flick, I'd say, "It's okay to like, it's Australian."

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