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Shotgun Marriage

The new Australian feature Muriel's Wedding evokes a couple of other independently funded hits from recent years, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Strictly Ballroom. It takes its obsession with matrimony from the former and its over-the-top tone and visual style from the latter. But it's undisciplined and klutzy, veering between camp, pathos, forced uplift and heavy-duty melodrama.

The film, by first time writer-director P.J. Hogan, never finds a unifying thread that would tie it into a remotely comprehensible package. The most successful scenes spotlight a root-for-the-underdog brand of slapstick so keenly attuned to human yearning and misery that it invokes Chaplin by way of Albert Brooks. But as uproariously funny as these moments are, they're undone by interludes of frightfully real pain that make you feel cheap and guilty for having laughed at what came before.

The film's heroine is a chunky, freckle-faced, bucktoothed girl named Muriel Heslop (Toni Collete). She comes from a family that might politely be termed dysfunctional: she's the oldest daughter of Bill Heslop (Bill Hunter), a scuzzy, philandering politician in the Sydney suburb of Porpoise Spit who continually berates his chronically insecure and overweight wife, Betty (Jeanie Drynan), and loathes his do-nothing kids. This red-faced, domineering patriarch has been telling his family members they're worthless for so long that they finally decided to believe him.

Muriel lives her life in a kind of cheerful fugue state, listening to the '70s disco ballads of ABBA and fantasizing obsessively about getting married (she likes to go into bridal shops, tell a prepared story about her upcoming nuptials and try on gowns and veils). Rather improbably, she's friends with a bunch of grating, gossipy, but conventionally beautiful young women headed by a newly married sexpot named Tania (Sophie Lee), but they cut her loose fairly early into the story when they decide to take a group vacation to the Tropics. (They're afraid that if Muriel tags along, she'll be a drag on their romantic lives; the film presents this thought as if it had never occurred to the women before.)

Desperate for approval, Muriel steals several thousand dollars from her parents and flies out to meet them. The girls instantly spot Muriel and try to humiliate her for being so nakedly needy.

But the trip isn't a total loss. At a luau, she meets a tough, attractive, beguilingly confident woman named Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), with whom she bonds. Rhonda puts Muriel's foes so firmly in their place she leaves them shell-shocked. Partly to begin a new life away from her old, bad memories, but mostly to escape the consequences of her theft, Muriel moves to Sydney and lives with her newfound friend, getting a job in a video store, adopting a more bohemian style of dress and even going out on a date. It's a given in this kind of movie that Muriel will eventually get married for real. It's also a given that her marriage will teach her tough truths about wish fulfillment and force her to become a stronger, wiser person.

I've just described the first third of the movie. If it sounds like a kooky, sweet-natured, picaresque comedy about an outcast woman finding herself, that's because it is -- at least part of the time. The comedic sequences in Muriel's Wedding have a uniquely daffy charm, and they're staged with such brio that they're almost impossible not to like. A scene at the resort in which Muriel and Rhonda don drag-queeny evening wear and lip-synch an ABBA song before a shocked crowd at a hotel bar is as fully realized as anything in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Muriel's assorted wedding reveries, which mix dreamy consumerist longing and some wonderful slow-motion close-ups, are surprisingly emotional. Best of all, Muriel's Wedding never condescends to its offbeat heroine, which counts for quite a bit.

The problem is that writer-director Hogan isn't content merely to amuse and occasionally touch his viewers; he apparently feels he also has to enlighten them about how wisdom comes from hard experience. To prove his point, he begins piling on plot twists so mean, improbable and grotesque they feel like they came straight from the pages of a John Irving novel. But at least Irving finds a consistent tone that helps unify his twin urges toward social realism and excremental satire.

Unfortunately, while Hogan wants to give audiences a wide variety of narrative tones, he appears to have zero interest in finding a way to patch them together. He simply shifts gears on a whim. The cast almost saves the picture, but not quite. The riotously funny Bill Hunter manages to make Bill Heslop seem crude, sleazy, myopic and pathetic without ever begging for viewer sympathy, and as Betty Heslop, Jeanie Drynan conveys a lost, lonely quality that's both funny and quite sad. And first-time screen actress Toni Collette, who plays Muriel, is a find, all right -- a wandering spirit so wrapped up in her own girlish fantasies that the slings and arrows of her enemies bounce right off her.

The strongest performer of the bunch, however, is Rachel Griffiths, who inhabits the skin of Muriel's tough pal Rhonda so convincingly that the character becomes a walking commentary on the movie. A lean-limbed, short-haired firebrand, Griffiths looks like a grown-up Juliette Lewis, but her angular jaw, husky voice and wary brown eyes -- which seem capable of spotting bullshit at a hundred paces -- imply a very old soul. This woman has adopted hedonism as a philosophy of life, not as an escape from it. She's dedicated herself to mining every last nugget of happiness from a very rough world.

Maybe that explains why, once Hogan gets around to punishing and marginalizing her, Rhonda's no-illusions stare becomes so profoundly unsettling. It's almost as if both the character and the actress who plays her were on to the filmmaker's cynical games and weren't about to hide how much they resented them. Rhonda gets to tell off a lot of phonies in Muriel's Wedding. She's so good at it I wish she'd gotten around to the director.

Muriel's Wedding.
Directed by P.J. Hogan. With Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Hunter and Jeanie Drynan.

Rated R.

105 minutes.

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