So you're scanning the shelves of the local DVD/video outlet, looking for something new to watch, and your eyes light on this little gem from 1994. Maybe you've never seen it before, and you look at the box, which raves, "Hysterically funny!", "Uproarious!", "Frisky, crowd-pleasing laughs!" Sounds like a good bit of light fun, no?
Don't be fooled. This movie is funny, sure, but also darkly sad and poignant. Those who have felt like outsiders at some point in their lives - and who amongst us hasn't? - will feel sympathetic heartache at the plight of the lead character, Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette in her breakout role), an insecure loner who dreams of a perfect wedding but has never been on a date or had a boyfriend. She's 22, unemployed, living at home, and overweight (Collette gained 40 lbs. for this role). Her father Bill Heslop (Bill Hunter), a politician in their small community of Porpoise Spit, constantly belittles his wife and children, stressing to their faces and to virtual strangers what worthless losers they are. Ground down by years of this abuse, Muriel is powerless and directionless; her only joy is retreating to her room to listen to ABBA.
The movie opens at the wedding of one of Muriel's high school friends, who berates her as selfish when she catches the bridal bouquet, cruelly asking "Why do you need it? Who would ever marry you?" The bride is one of a trio of catty bitches that Muriel calls friends, and they soon tell Muriel to stop following them around, whereupon Muriel collapses into pathetic wailing, begging them not to ostracize her and promising to change. It's a sad little scene that epitomizes Muriel's alienation and desperate loneliness.
But she soon finds an escape of sorts: she steals her father's money and follows the trio on a tropical vacation, where she meets up with a much nicer high school chum Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) who had been similarly tormented by the evil trio. After Rhonda summarily knocks them down a peg, Muriel and Rhonda lip synch to ABBA's "Dancing Queen" at the talent contest and win a magnum of champagne. They get drunk and Muriel confesses her feelings of worthlessness, which Rhonda stoutly denies. Muriel has a real friend at last.
Then the real changes begin. Muriel and Rhonda move to Sydney, find jobs, and Muriel even gets a date! But her life hasn't turned around quite yet: among the obstacles she still has to face are a friend with crippling cancer, a family suicide, and her own pathological lying. Even her eventual wedding, dreamily perfect on the surface, is a farce and a lie that can't possibly fulfill her as she had imagined it would. In the end she does face up to her life and begin to make the changes she needs to in order to become happy, but this happens in the last five minutes of the film.
Though this can hardly qualify as "frisky, crowd-pleasing laughs", this is nevertheless a very good film. Collette is totally convincing as the pathetic and tormented Muriel, and the change in her life, when it finally comes, feels genuine and deserved. The supporting cast - especially Griffiths and Hunter - are great, and the music is cheesy but fun. This won't be the rolicking laugh fest promised on the box, but it is an enjoyable movie, and I recommend it.
Muriel's Wedding was written and directed by P.J. Hogan, who also directed My Best Friend's Wedding, another sad, not-so-funny comedy about an unhappy woman.