Sunday, May 26, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Muriel’s Wedding’

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To think I’ve gone 29 years without seeing P. J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding. What a daft critic I would have been if I had made it 30.  

Muriel’s Wedding is one of those movies that’s about everything. A movie so rife with themes and tiny little stories that even though it is about one thing in particular, it is about a dozen different other things as well. Hogan’s script is so observant, and his direction so precise that the story can easily be viewed through a dozen different lenses, and they would all be valid. For myself, I spent the runtime spellbound and unable to predict where the movie was going.

muriel's wedding
Muriel (Toni Colette) and Rhonda (Rachel Grifiths) bond intantly.

The last part is as much due to Hogan’s script as is Muriel’s Wedding’s reputation as a “crowd pleaser” and a “comedy.” While I’m sure crowds in the 90s were pleased, and while there are some laughs, on the whole, Hogan’s opus is hard to classify. What isn’t hard to label, though, is the deep well of sadness and melancholy that runs under every scene.

Muriel’s Wedding is probably most remembered for being the breakout role for Toni Colette as Muriel. Colette’s turn as the big-boned, love-starved, awkward ABBA-obsessed outcast. Her turn as Muriel Heslop is breathtaking in how it walks the line between comedy and heartbreaking tragedy. Muriel is convinced that she can only be happy if she were married, even though she’s never had a boyfriend.

Truthfully, maybe the movie played to me so well because I grew up in a small town and never wished to return. Or perhaps I too found someone that made my life as good as any ABBA song. Muriel’s family lives in a small Australian town called Porpoise Spit, where everyone knows of everyone, even if they don’t know everyone. A place where you can go to a Chinese restaurant and then hear someone say, “Oh, look who it is; it’s Diedre Chambers!” Porpoise Spit is small enough to where bumping into Diedre isn’t surprising, but the number of times she and Bill happened to be in the same place should be a bigger flag to Betty, Muriel, and the rest of her family.

Hogan gets at the deep river of unhappiness that flows through a person when trapped in a small town. It’s not universal, but some people, myself included, aren’t built for it. An attitude and a pervasive atmosphere of gossip and judgment can feel oppressive and drive a person up the wall.

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Rhonda (Griffiths) and Muriel (Colette) perform an ABBA duet.

Both Colette and Hogan never ask you to pity Muriel. More so, Hogan never sneers at Muriel as a lesser movie would. Colette and Hogan instead allow Muriel to be a deeply flawed and, at times, almost sociopathic character warped by a family and a society that has made her feel worthless.

Muriel is not alone in her spiraling depression. Her mother, Betty (Jeanie Drynan), is often seen staring out into the distance, almost as if she’s disassociating. Hogan’s script and direction hint that Betty might be undiagnosed with something; at one point, she even begs her husband, disgraced politician Bill (Bill Hunter), for help. He only wants a divorce.

Throughout Muriel’s Wedding, Hogan shows us women on the verge of a nervous breakdown as they struggle to live up to the impossible standards set upon them by society. Even the mean girls who Muriel wants so desperately to be friends with and who want so desperately want nothing to do with Muriel, as bitch as they may be, are framed as being lost and in pain even if they don’t know it. Women must be wives, mothers, heads of households without any real say, and also desirable-and they must do it all without complaining.

But then Muriel meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), a fellow high school dropout, and the two bond instantly. Whereas Muriel’s friends want nothing to do with her and, like her father, constantly try to devalue her, Rhonda sticks up for Muriel and loves her just the way she is-even if Muriel doesn’t. Rhonda and Mureil’s friendship is the lifeblood of Muriel’s Wedding.

muriel's wedding
Betty (Jeanie Drynan) and Joanie (Gabbie Millgate) welcome Muriel home.

Colette is amazing. The scene where she stares into the mirror as “Dancing Queen” plays her resolve to get married growing to a fever pitch is unsettling in that it makes us want to hug her. But as great as she is, Griffiths is just as pitch-perfect. Griffiths is like a bolt of lightning onscreen, effervescent and dynamic. She’s everything Muriel isn’t, outgoing, independent, sure of herself, and happy. Muriel sees in Rhonda not just a chance at being cool but a chance at being happy, providing the film’s not-so-subtle Queer subtext.

Though, when Muriel tells Rhonda that life is just as good as an Abba song ever since they met, “It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen’,” the subtext becomes brief text. Still, even discounting the Queerness, the notion that women’s friendships are just as emotionally rewarding as a romantic relationship with a man is rare even by today’s standards. It’s not the same, just different, but no less vital.

Muriel, Rhonda, and Betty are all, in a way, searching for happiness in a society that seems built to make them anything but. Rhonda only succeeds because she ignores what is expected of her, something she tries to get Muriel to see. Even after a devastating monologue in which Mureil confesses her wedding obsession with her, Rhonda likes Muriel because she is Muriel-even if she is going by Mariel now,

Muriel’s Wedding is refreshing because Hogan’s script refuses to be boxed in. It starts in one place and then careens about another, but with such confidence, we are left compelled instead of frustrated. I thought I knew where the movie was going once the movie started but then by the time she and Rhonda had fled to Sydney and changed her name to Mariel to escape prosecution for stealing her father’s money, I had given up and was going along for the ride. 

Hogan doesn’t cut corners. Mureil’s change isn’t instant; instead, it comes after a series of tragedies, the final one being an absolute gutter, and it’s only then that she realizes she has to stop lying to herself and everyone else. “I tell so many lies. One day I won’t know I’m doing it.” That her confession is to a South African swimmer David Van Arckle (Daniel Lapaine), who married her for a passport, shows that Muriel is finally at ease with herself.

If Muriel’s Wedding had coasted on Hogan’s script, it would still be a good movie, but part of its greatness comes from Martin McGrath’s camerawork and Jill Billock’s editing. McGrath’s split-diopter shots parallel both Muriel and Betty’s tendency to dissociate and Billock’s cutting that provides a rhythm for the complex emotions that hum in every scene time to breathe, pushing Muriel’s Wedding into greatness.

At the heart of Muriel’s Wedding is a profound understanding of loneliness and feeling unlovable that reaches out across time and space and folds us into the film’s arms. Colette’s Muriel makes mistake after mistake, tells a lie after lie, and yet I found myself siding with her sister Joanie (Gabby Millgate) when she would smirk and say, “You’re terrible, Muriel.” Muriel is a liar, a thief, a bad friend, a not-so-great daughter, probably a lousy sibling, and not a horrible person. The thing about Muriel, and why I love her so much, is because how could I not?

Often “everyperosn characters” are bland ciphers, meant by filmmakers to be largely blank so we can project ourselves onto them. But in reality, we share much more in common with Muriel than we care to admit, and just like Muriel, we all deserve love and a chance at happiness and a Rhonda. So here’s to good ol’ Muriel Heslop and everyone who ever found someone who made them feel like their life was as good as any ABBA song.

Images courtesy of Roadshow Entertainment

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