Posted by martinteller on July 29, 2014
If, like me, you’ve only judged this movie by its title and its poster art, you might dismiss it as a standard, cookie-cutter romantic comedy. Probably containing some wacky misadventures and mix-ups as “Muriel” prepares for her “wedding”, which will of course turn out for the best in the end, even if it’s not exactly what she thought she wanted. Perhaps there’s a wise-cracking BFF in the mix, and perhaps she’s marrying the “wrong” guy only to discover her true love has been right under her nose the whole time. Something like that. Of course, you’d be wrong, or else I wouldn’t preface my review in this fashion. Prejudgments are a bitch, but hey, that’s what you do when there’s millions of movies you can see and only one lifetime to see them. Sometimes it takes an outside force — say, a savvy fiancée — to push you towards something you’d written off.
There is a wedding… two of them, actually, although I won’t tell you whether or not either of them is Muriel’s, I will say that neither comes at the end. And there is a BFF named Rhonda, played beautifully by Rachel Griffiths, and she has some wisdom but I wouldn’t say she’s wisecracking. Little about the film is formulaic, or in the vein of what you’d call a “chick flick” (except that the principal characters are women, and if that’s all it takes to make a chick flick, then you can call me a fan of the genre). It concerns a young Australian woman (Toni Collette) who is an unsophisticated oddball with no prospects… what the natives might refer to as a “bogan”*. She yearns to be someone else, a feeling pounded into her by her uncaring father and a quartet of shallow “friends”. Muriel is particularly obsessed with marriage, believing that a wedding will prove she is somebody.
But Muriel is not your typical movie heroine. She repeatedly makes very bad decisions. It’s quite painful to watch the decisions she makes. In this sense, the comedy of the film can be a rather dark comedy, and among the laughs are a lot of winces at the poor choices she makes, some of them harmful to those few who care about her. Writer/director P.J. Hogan doesn’t make Muriel easy to love. But Toni Collette does. In a performance that reminds me of Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria (that’s high praise indeed coming from me), vulnerability seeps from her pores. Hogan wisely gives us a few lengthy close-ups of Collette’s face, which she performs wonders with. You can’t bear to see her lie herself into a phony personality, you want to grab hold of her and tell her all the things her father never did. But she has to learn the hard way. Transformation doesn’t come easy, even when — perhaps especially when — you need to transform into the person you were to begin with.
There are some characters who are a little too cartoonishly nasty, but most of them show a more human side eventually. And besides, it is still at least partially a comedy and a few bad guys to knock down are allowed (in another twist on the formula, Muriel herself never stands up to the shallow girls). The humor of the film is pretty sharp most of the time, with funny bits that never feel like cheap shots. But beyond the laughs, what makes this movie work are the strong and sometimes challenging characterization of Muriel, and also Rhonda. Whatever triumphant moments these two have are hard-earned, and all the more satisfying for that.
It should be noted that if you don’t enjoy the music of ABBA, you may have a rough time with this movie. It should also be noted that if you don’t enjoy the music of ABBA, shame on you. Rating: Very Good (85)