In Sickness and in Health

Oh, to be the Dancing Queen. You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life. See that girl! Watch that scene! Digging the Dancing Queen.

Forgive me. I just get so carried away every time I hear those magic words, and I heard them a lot in Muriel's Wedding, first-time Aussie writer-director P.J. Hogan's campy ugly-duckling story. Just as ABBA couched melancholy lyrics in buoyant, upbeat melodies, so Hogan glaces his bird with a deceptively sweet and funny sheen that disguises the pungent meat below the surface.

At first glance Muriel Heslop doesn't look like a potential Dancing Queen. In fact, as played to gawky, self-conscious perfection by Toni Collette, Muriel resembles an Australian version of Hairspray-era Ricki Lake A awkward, overweight, and plain. She will, of course, eventually undergo the transformation from fat and homely to buxom and comely (the ugly duckling must become a swan), but initially she's merely unattractive and chubby. And addicted to the music of a certain Swedish pop quartet.

Muriel shares a home with her deranged family in the fictional seaside resort of Porpoise Spit, Australia. The town motto (coined by Muriel's father) may be "You can't stop progress," but Porpoise Spit is strictly strip-mall and Tupperware country. The word dysfunctional doesn't begin to do the Heslops justice; better to label the Manson family "unconventional" or David Koresh and his followers "disenfranchised." Muriel, her shell-shocked mother, and her slack-jawed, couch-spud siblings all cower before big daddy Bill Heslop, a boorish, philandering, political wanna-be whose conviction that his family is good for nothing has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only Muriel dares to dream of escaping the oppression of her overbearing father and the boring life in their suburban wasteland by the sea. She awaits her Prince Charming in the sanctuary of her bedroom, where clipped magazine photographs of beaming brides in flowing gowns festoon the walls, and a steady stream of ABBA burbles from the stereo.

Hogan, like John Waters, skewers the suburbs to great comic effect. The Heslops would have been right at home in Waters's beloved Baltimore; and it isn't hard to imagine Serial Mom spilling blood and fixing dinner in Porpoise Spit. Neither director shies away from camp, although Hogan doesn't go nearly so far over the top as Waters. Still, the modus operandi is the same: serious social criticism tempered with quirky comic relief.

Bill Heslop and his daughter have a lot more in common than either would care to admit. Both are consumed by a burning desire for acceptance, and neither is reluctant to bend the law to get what he or she wants. Mr. Heslop defines success by the number of big shots who call to pay their respects; Muriel equates happiness with finding a mate.

But poor Muriel. Her family is a mess, her self-esteem is shot, and her so-called friends offer no support whatsoever. "We don't want you hanging around us any more," they inform her none too gently in a nightclub.

"You bring us down, Muriel."
"You embarrass us." (This from a girl who, on her wedding day, finds another woman's lipstick on her husband's penis.)

"You've got to find friends on your own level."
Their rejection stings, but Muriel is so deeply in denial that when her three bitchy pseudopals go on holiday without her, she steals money from her father and follows them. But a funny thing happens to the ABBA fanatic. While shadowing her erstwhile friends, Muriel runs into a lusty life force and ex-classmate named Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths looking like Juliette Lewis to Collette's Ricki Lake), a free spirit who, thinking Muriel is engaged and looking for a quickie affair before walking down the aisle, takes the refugee from Porpoise Spit under her wing. "Stick with me, Muriel," Rhonda assures her. "My whole life is one last fling after another."

The two become fast friends, Muriel following Rhonda to Sydney -- "City of Brides" -- and flourishing under her new roommate's tutelage. Muriel even meets a nice guy and almost experiences the joy of sex (the inexperienced couple's fumbling attempt at lovemaking is the funniest scene of the year). But just when things are really looking up for Muriel, Hogan turns her world upside down, testing Muriel's mettle with tragedy. You can almost hear the gears grinding as Hogan's campy romp violently downshifts into a scathing indictment of marriage, bourgeois hypocrisy, and the Australian good-old-boy archetype.

Hogan may be a rookie feature filmmaker, but he's a talented one. He pulls off the abrupt change in tone with aplomb. Unfortunately, even the deftest of storytellers cannot switch directions so far into a film without losing momentum. Hogan relies on broad humor and off-beat characterization early on, firmly establishing his as an original cinematic vision. However, the second half of Muriel's Wedding, while clever and interesting and well made, is just not as fresh or as compelling. Hogan's voice is still strong, but now it sounds like a lot of other people's voices. Muriel finally gets her wedding, though in the end it's something less than she imagined it would be.


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