This week for Beauty in the Movies we look at Muriel’s Wedding, a film that falls into the sadly rare comedy/drama category and is as heartbreaking as it is hysterical.
Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is unemployed, obsessed with weddings, and living with her parents in her hometown of Porpoise Spit Australia. All the Heslop children still live at home under constant verbal assault from their overbearing and often cruel politician father (Bill Hunter). Muriel still hangs out with the popular girls from her high school. They treat her like trash, call her fat, and berate her for embarrassing them with her bad clothes, love of 70s music (specifically ABBA), and general un-coolness (this is the 90s after all!). When they plan a getaway and tell her they don’t want her to come, Muriel uses a blank check from her mother and heads off to the same resort alone.
Once at the resort she coincidentally meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), another friend from high school who helps her stand-up to the bitchy girls who scorned her. Rhonda and Muriel become fast friends and move to Sydney where Muriel vows to start a whole new life, but escaping the family she left in Porpoise Spit might be harder than she thought. When Rhonda is forced to suddenly change her partying ways, it’s the true test of her and Muriel’s friendship.
Australians really have a knack for creating hysterical over-the-top characters who can also be deeply empathetic. Films like this one, as well as Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla Queen of the Desert, give us overblown humor mixed in with dark subjects, but the characters feel honest so the two integrate as naturally as they do in all our lives. I get sick of movies that are all sad or all happy, everyone is either living in expensive apartments having wacky romances or everyone is dying of cancer and losing children, it’s just too much sometimes.
A great portion of the success of this film belongs to Toni Collette. A lesser actress couldn’t make Muriel, whose actions are often morally questionable, such a sympathetic character. Muriel is obsessed with getting married, not because she wants to fall in love, but because she wants to show everyone that she has changed—that she is a success. Muriel is an incredibly selfish character, she lies, she steals and she doesn’t seem to care much about any of it, of course that’s the point of the movie, but if the audience didn’t care about the character despite her many flaws, it wouldn’t mean anything when she finally realizes the error of her ways.
Muriel’s father is abusive, he doesn’t hit his children, but he might as well because the verbal abuse he heaps on his whole family (including his wife who he seems to have pushed to the edge of sanity) does more damage to them in the long run. Sadly, it’s all too common a thing to see in families, and it’s not talked about very often. Muriel’s real success is that she escapes from her prolonged adolescence and stops believing that she has to run away from who she is.
Despite what you might think, Muriel’s Wedding is not a romantic comedy, it’s dark, and despite its incredible humor, it’s depressing at times. This film completely breaks the mold in terms of what we think films about weddings are supposed to be. It’s not about two people overcoming obstacles to be together, or about living happily ever after, it’s about life, both the bad and the good. In this story there isn’t a white knight, or a perfect guy, because often in life the real person who saves you isn’t the one who comes sweeping in for the rescue, but the one who will sit beside you through anything—and make you laugh about it.
If you’re still not sold, this film is worth seeing for the awesome ABBA filled soundtrack and dance number too. Give ABBA a chance, it’s worth it, really.
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