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Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

February 18th, 2008 · 12 Comments

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Synopsis
Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette), a freckled faced and overweight geek, lives in the Gold Coast town of “Porpoise Spit” with her father (Bill Hunter), a politician who blames his “useless” family for ruining his chance at higher office. While Muriel’s brothers and sisters do little but smoke and watch TV all day, Muriel is singled out for spending two years in secretarial school and graduating without learning how to type. Her only enjoyments in life are listening to Abba songs and dreaming about getting married.

Muriel’s “friends” (Sophie Lee, Roz Hammond, Belinda Jarrett, Pippa Grandison) go on holiday but leave Muriel because she doesn’t fit partying their image. Muriel’s father gets her a job selling cosmetics, but she embezzles money from the family’s bank account and follows the girls to Hibiscus Island. There, she meets Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths), a feisty outcast who shares Muriel’s love of ‘70s music, and says and does all the things Mariel wishes she could.

Rather than return to Porpoise Spit, Muriel moves to Sydney with her new best friend. She starts a new life, changing her name to “Mariel” and losing weight. Her dreams appear to come true when she agrees to marry a South African swimmer trying to get Australian citizenship. But in her eagerness to become a bride, Muriel begins to neglect Rhonda and severs ties with her dysfunctional family. This prompts her to examine what it is she’s changing into.

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Production history
P.J. Hogan was an aspiring filmmaker living in Sydney. He’d been working on a script for two or three years only to have financing evaporate at the last minute. His wife Jocelyn Moorhouse rose to critical acclaim in 1991 with a debut film called Proof that featured an unknown Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe in the cast. But the couple didn’t have much money, and Hogan felt nobody would ever make one of his films.

Hogan found inspiration in his sister, who had a stormy relationship with their father. The family had gotten her a job selling cosmetics, but she’d forged their father’s name on a check, drained his bank account and disappeared for a year. Hogan felt that was a good beginning for a movie. Sitting in a café – wishing he could be transformed into a filmmaker – Hogan noticed girls entering a bridal shop and trying on clothes in an effort to transform themselves into brides. This became the basis for Muriel’s Wedding.

Hogan outlined a 30-page treatment and sent it to the Australian Film Commission. He was told his story was terrible. With help from a smaller financier, Hogan finished a script in three months. Everyone Hogan and Moorhouse approached to finance the film turned them down. While French company CiBy 2000 deliberated their decision, Hogan called director Jane Campion and asked her to write him a letter of recommendation. Campion’s letter convinced CiBy to finance the picture.

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After 21-year-old Toni Collette was chosen to play Muriel and the producers spent months cajoling Abba to license their music for the film (the Swedish pop icons had resisted all other overtures in the past), Muriel’s Wedding premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1994. It was released in Australia in September alongside Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Both films were blockbusters and revitalized the Australian film industry, with Muriel’s Wedding making the loudest splash with critics and audiences in the U.S.

Opinion
While the film has big laughs – the slacker Heslop siblings are a riot, while a seduction scene where Muriel’s date confuses the zipper on a beanbag for zipper of her skirt is a terrific screwball moment – it bares little resemblance for what passes for “romantic comedy” in Hollywood. Muriel’s Wedding actually looks at marriage without rose tinted glasses. It’s very funny, but dares to be brutally honest and at times uncomfortable, portraying a woman who feels unwanted and is desperate for any type of acceptance in life.

While Hogan demonstrates considerable finesse balancing his debut film between dark comedy and light drama, much of that credit goes to Toni Collette, who not only gained 40 pounds in seven weeks for her role, but gives one of great comedic performances of the last quarter century. By the end of the picture, we truly get a sense of how much these women love each other, a credit to Collette and Rachel Griffith’s vibrant acting, as well as the four Abba tunes selected for memorable effect.

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Edwin Jahiel at Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel writes, “Collette plays Muriel as a sort of simpleton, but she is no freak a la Forrest Gump. It may not be obvious, but Collette’s role was every bit as demanding as Tom Hanks’s. And while you cannot identify with Muriel, her lust for life, the changes within her one-dimensionality, and her new confidence in herself will make you root for her.”

“I really enjoyed this movie. I was expecting a very feel-good oriented movie but once again, Australian directors give you something different to the norm we are fed out of Hollywood,” writes Steve Koukoulas at DVD.net.

James Berardinelli writes, “One of the most pleasant aspects of Muriel’s Wedding is the distinctly unconventional third act. No one seeing this movie will confuse it with a Hollywood picture, as it continually flouts the “feel good” formulas that typically characterize this sort of romantic comedy. The ending is far-from-perfect, but it’s a great deal better than several obvious alternatives.”

“Oh, by the way, I’m not alone. I’m with Muriel.” View Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette in a really funny scene from Muriel’s Wedding.

Tags: Black comedy · Famous line · Father/daughter relationship · Mother/daughter relationship · Music

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pat Evans // Feb 19, 2008 at 5:28 am

    Australian movies often leave me cold, largely because I find the accents so grating — so it takes a special one like this film to overcome my resistance. It’s a real charmer! And look how both Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths have become part of the mainstream in the subsequent years.

  • 2 stennie // Feb 19, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    I f’ing Love. This. Movie. It’s funny; I always see it billed as a comedy, and in fact the trailers I’ve seen for it punch up the laughs as well, but on the whole I don’t find it a funny movie. I find it overwhelming sad and lonely, and meticulous in its ability to convey sadness and loneliness.

    Muriel’s Wedding made ABBA cool. I can’t hear “Waterloo” without remembering its use in this film. It’s one of my favorite films of the ’90s and made my Essential 100 Films list as well. (Which you can find here, if I may be so bold).

  • 3 Marilyn // Feb 20, 2008 at 8:46 am

    I love this film, too, and agree that it comes off more sad than funny. As for Aussie films you can curl up with, I suggest you check out The Castle, simply one of the sweetest, funniest, and most off-center films I’ve ever seen.

  • 4 Jeremy // Feb 20, 2008 at 10:29 am

    Excellent review Joe. I really adore Toni Collette and remember very clearly seeing her in this for the first time. You really hit on a lot of what makes this film special here. Great post…

  • 5 Tricia // Feb 20, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    I can’t believe Toni was only 21 when she did this! I remember exactly where I saw this gem — in tiny Theater 12 of the multiplex that made me the popcorn-scooper (and movie fan) I am now.

    What a great post — both review and profile in one. I love hearing how people get their ideas. Keep up the good work!

  • 6 Chuck // Feb 20, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    I haven’t seen this picture, so I’ll be of little use here I’m afraid. I never much wanted to see Muriel’s Wedding, truth be told, but it appears that I will have to rethink that. I admire Toni Collette a great deal, and Hogan’s Peter Pan had wonderful moments, even if it didn’t quite cohere.

  • 7 Justine // Feb 20, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this film, didn’t do much for me… I do think Collette was brilliant though, she usually is. I especially love her in About a Boy.

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Feb 20, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Patricia: I think grating toughness is a part of the Australian national character, isn’t it? Nicole Kidman would be an example; I don’t know if she has ever given a performance I could empathize with. As you pointed out, that makes Muriel’s Wedding so much more novel.

    Heidi: Thanks for sharing your incredibly cool taste with my 14 readers. Like you, I feel this movie is one of the overlooked classics of the ’90s. Watching Toni Collette during the scene where her “friends” tell her to get lost is somehow both heartbreaking and hilarious.

    Marilyn: I had never heard of The Castle, but Sophie Lee, Eric Bana and your recommendation carry a lot of weight. I always welcome a rental suggestion from you. Thanks!

    Jeremy: While she’s hardly a household name, the right people know all about Toni Collette. She was the first actor Karen Moncrieff went after for her ensemble film The Dead Girl. Once Collette was on board, all the other actors approached wanted to be in the movie. She has that kind of reputation among her peers.

    Tricia: Your compliment means a lot, coming from a professional film critic and popcorn machine operator. I’ll endeavor to press on because I know you’re reading. Thanks!

    Chuck: Australian filmmakers have done so much great work, following their own beat – with absolutely no concern for making a mass entertainment – and this movie is one of the best, at least from the 1990s. As far as Peter Pan, I have heard many others echo your sentiments and haven’t much wanted to see it for that reason. Now I’m actually more curious. Thanks for commenting!

    Justine: You’re not the only person who think it’s a great film, but About A Boy did absolutely nothing for me. The Weitz Brothers; how underachieving is it when American Pie represents your career milestone? So we disagree, yet we agree. Toni Collette is obviously an actor we both love. Thanks for commenting!

  • 9 Nick Plowman // Mar 3, 2008 at 8:33 am

    This is absolutely one of my favourite movies ever, at least the best Australian film I have ever seen.

    Toni Collette is so lovely, and I will never forget her turn as Muriel. She is “the dancing queen…” lol.

    Great review, just great!

  • 10 Guytano Parks // Sep 1, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Muriel’s Wedding, a film which perpetually plays in my subconcious, is one of the very, very few films which I have seen perhaps 20 times or more. It is only a short matter of time until I must have my “Muriel Heslop fix,” and then I can’t wipe that grin off my face while thinking about the “Waterloo” scene for weeks!…fellow Muriel addicts: you know what I’m talking about!

  • 11 Sonja // Sep 11, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Firstly, Pat Evans, just get over the accent.
    And go watch more foreign films.

    Muriel’s Wedding was one of the good Australian Movies. There are a few absolute gems out there, and sometimes they are overlooked.

    I find that what Muriel goes through could be applied Universally to anyone. A girl so into her fantasy world that she ignores reality.

    Other Aussie movies that I just love to death are: ‘Two Hands’ and ‘The Castle’.

    Heath Ledger is the main character in ‘Two Hands’ (that should at least get his fans to watch this!), and that film is dark, but has absolute hilarious moments during serious scenes, such as during the bank robbery.

    In regards to The Castle, I heard they dubbed it and Americanised it for the US Audience, and of course that version fails dismally – if you are going to see it, see the original Aussie version.

    I think a lot of non Australians just don’t get our dark sense of humour, or our jokes. Many funny moments are subtle.
    Also, not all our films have happy endings, a la “The Square”.
    So a very different to standard Hollywood.

  • 12 Amy // Mar 11, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    i do love this movie and toni is the best actress and i always dreams the same way to get married.

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