Before he directed the Julia Roberts hit comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Australian filmmaker P.J. Hogan crafted this quirky, charming ode to feminine friendship and the joys of ABBA music. Like Strictly Ballroom (1992), another Aussie crowd-pleaser, Muriel’s Wedding features eccentric characters, dysfunctional families, and actor Bill Hunter. However, Muriel’s Wedding differs significantly in overall tone, effortlessly shifting back and forth between comedy and drama.
The film’s protagonist is Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette), a plain-looking young woman with a severe shortage of self-esteem. Her father, a local politician who fancies himself a bigwig, constantly berates Muriel—even calling her a “deadweight” in front of strangers. Her “friends” call her fat and criticize her hair style, clothes, and preference for ’70s music. She longs to leave the town of Porpoise Spit and get married.
Muriel realizes part of her dream after befriending Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), a free spirit who shares Muriel’s love for ABBA. The girls move to Sydney and enjoy an interlude of working-class bliss before a series of unforeseen events change both their lives. There is indeed a wedding, but it’s not what one expects—and that surprising quality is what makes Muriel’s Wedding such a delight (well, that plus watching Muriel and Rhonda, dressed as the ABBA girls, lip-synching to “Waterloo”).
Toni Collette, in her first starring role, transforms Muriel from an awkward loner to a confident adult who finally learns what’s important in her life. In later film roles, Collette would continue to display her amazing versatility, acting in costume dramas (Emma), suspense films (The Sixth Sense), and comedy (About a Boy).
Writer-director Hogan displays a sure hand throughout, especially in a crucial scene that goes from funny to serious in a matter of seconds. His clever use of music adds sparkle to several scenes (e.g., ABBA’s “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” played during a wedding). Hogan would display his canny use of music again in the underrated Unconditional Love and My Best Friend’s Wedding; my favorite scene in the latter film is when the wedding party joins Rupert Everett as he serenades Julie Roberts with “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Except for Scotland’s Bill Forsyth, Aussie filmmakers had the market for quirky comedy-dramas cornered in the 1980s and 1990s. Check out Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom to see why. They’d make a great double-feature.