By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Since the renaissance in Australian cinema in the '70s, movies from "down under" have been some of the most challenging or entertaining in recent years. From dramatic epics like "Gallipoli" to quirky comedies like "Strictly Ballroom" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," Australia's filmic offering has remained consistently enjoyable.
"Muriel's Wedding," the feature debut of Australian director P. J. Hogan, is a wonderfully charming comedy that focuses on Muriel Helsop (Toni Collette), the "most unlikely bride in Porpoise Spit, Australia," as one character puts it.
Muriel is the daughter of a domineering politician (Bill Hunter) who puts up a competent front to the media world, but presides over a despondent and lethargic family of couch potatoes and a perpetually daydreaming mother.
Beaten by her father's charges that she's worthless and her girlfriends' condescending complaints that her unattractiveness embarrasses them, Muriel retreats by listening to ABBA tapes and browsing through bridal catalogues imagining a world of popular acceptance and personal serenity.
Just when things become unbearable, Muriel escapes to Sydney, changing her name to "Mariel," hoping to find a new identity and the man of her dreams.
"Muriel's Wedding" is a movie about ordinary people who get caught up in popular notions of success and condemn themselves for not living up to other people's standards. Unlike other movies about personal transformations, it never tries to soften Muriel's initial personage by "prettying her up" but shows how such cultural standards are intrinsically shallow.
Director Hogan is adept at visually recreating the mundane realities of life. There is a scene where Muriel's mother places a tea mug into the microwave. There is a close-up of her hand punching the one minute, 30 seconds time, a shot of her face staring ahead, and a shot of the tea mug slowly revolving around the turntable. The scene is so mundane that the elaborate visual coverage creates hilarious irony.
Muriel's lapses into romantic fantasy are also engaging. The outside sounds diminish and are replaced with the bright, thumping sounds of ABBA, with Muriel expressionlessly mouthing the lyrics as if waiting for a drug to take effect.
Toni Collette won the Australian Best Actress award with her sensitive and sincere performance that brings a homely and simple character to life. The rest of the cast, including Rachel Griffiths as an outspoken schoolmate who befriends Muriel, and Muriel's facile friends who resemble the namesakes of "Heathers" ten years older, energize the movie with their eccentric and entertaining performances.
"Muriel's Wedding" is a relevant movie that is also hilarious, compassionate, and realistic. Its ability to dramatize the universal quest for self worth while lampooning popular cultural myths makes it a fresh and inspiring comedy.
"Muriel's Wedding" is showing at Catalina Cinemas, 881-0616.
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