Muriel’s Wedding (1994)
Director: P.J. Hogan
Main Cast: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Hunter
Although billed as the story of small town girl Muriel’s (Toni Collette’s) attempts to “make her own way” in the world, what is most striking about this Australian comedy is that it is catalogues the typically conflicting attempts by various characters to advance their social status. It is also well cast, well acted and well written. Oh, and, unlike so many Aussie comedies, it’s actually funny. Muriel is the daughter of an aging, insignificant local politician (Bill Hunter) with desperate, pathetic and cliched delusions of grandeur. He considers all of his family members failures, more or less, holding him back from his ambitions. Muriel leaves for the big city, Sydney, and her path there triggers events that put her family in a downward spiral. Initially desperate for the approval of the popular girls from her high school, she meets another former classmate (Rachel Griffiths) on a holiday. The two become fast friends, and share an apartment in Sydney. Muriel feigns having a fiancee, and dreams of getting married. These are the external validations she sees as crucial to her standing in the eyes of those around her. She does achieve marriage eventually, in the most demeaning way possible. Toni Collette is perfect in the title role–her big breakthrough. Her performance at the big wedding (for a change, not the end of the movie) is wonderful, and just the expression on her face walking down the aisle–giddy, silly, unjustified, embarrassingly inappropriate, gloating, uncontained joy–encapsulates much of the movie. The film always lands on its feet portraying the more-juvenile-than-they-realize aspirations of young adults in the 1990s. There is no shortage of smaller gags, and the dramatic elements are well paced, seamlessly integrated with the humorous content, and and asset to the overall work. All of the main characters seek social status, and many commit injustices against those around them to do so. The “heart-warming” ending finds at least Muriel (she changes her name at one point to Mariel–to be a different person) changing her outlook on life. Rather than seek a mild form of greatness (success in the big things of life–her version of the larger social stage) she chooses happiness (success in the small things in life–for her, friendship). What makes this treatment so successful is that the ending makes no explicit statement as to whether Muriel’s “mature” choice of the path of “happiness” is borne of her own free will or merely through a zen-like acceptance of her social position. Her father explicitly concedes to something like the latter. Her mother (Jeanie Drynan) makes a tragic, but altruistic choice of neither. Of all the characters in the film, the most selfless acts are by Muriel’s mother. Muriel, despite her supposed growth as a person, has merely evolved from pure self-interest to a kind of ambivalent “two against the world” friend pairing that has the feel of a willing compromise among those closest to her. This is the moral center of the film. It holds that you should not harm others. But in relegating the mother to a peripheral role, it puts little emphasis on selfless altruism.