It’s almost enough to say merely that Muriel Heslop lives in Porpoise Spit, Australia. If the unintentional revulsion of that beachside burg’s name isn’t bad enough, the flat vowels that (thet) Aussies use to pronounce it are an audio reflection of its less-than-glamorous nature.
Imagine Paul Hogan saying, “Welcome to Poh-puss spit, mite.”
But let’s not simply bad-mouth the town. The Muriel (Toni Collette) that we meet at the beginning of “Muriel’s Wedding” would be the perfect Porpoise Spit resident: Overweight, geekily clothed and so sweatily anxious to be in that she can’t tell how far she’s out until her nasty, trend-conscious friends tell her.
Things begin to change, though, when Muriel takes advantage of her even more pathetic mother, heads out on holiday, meets up with her old school chum Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) and ends up living her “new life” in Sydney. It is in this new guise that Muriel, obsessed with the idea of perfect marriage, stumbles onto just that. And with a dreamboat.
But do dreams ever really come real?
Being a minor, if charming, little comedy, “Muriel’s Wedding” works out all right. Muriel suffers through her coming-of-age crisis and emerges somewhat wiser and certainly better able to face the real world outside Porpoise Spit. Nothing new here.
But there are a few things that set this import apart:
1. Toni Collette. She gained, so she says, 40-some pounds to play the lead character. And if subsequent pictures of the 22-year-old actress haven’t been retouched, it appears to be the truth.
Regardless, it is Collette’s acting that makes us care for Muriel, pitiful as she is at the film’s start. Whether kicking her legs in a lip-sync celebration of an ABBA song or clutching desperately the bridal bouquet meant for someone else, she captures our heart.
2. ABBA. Yes, for whatever reason, the Australians just love this 1970s-era Swedish pop band. Just as in last year’s hit “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “Muriel’s Wedding” is filled with songs such as “Fernando” and “Waterloo.” And, for whatever reason, it works.
3. Rachel Griffiths. A ringer for American actress Juliet Lewis, Griffiths (though a bit more athletic) conveys all the energy that Muriel lacks. Taken as a tandem, this duo is impossible to beat.
4. Jeanie Drynan. As Muriel’s mom, Drynan captures all the spiritless nature of the woman Muriel herself is doomed to become - unless she takes matters into her own hands. Drynan and Griffiths give “Muriel’s Wedding” the slight hard edge that makes the rest of the film work.
“Muriel’s Wedding” is positioned to become this year’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” It’s a small, feel-good import with a hook (ABBA).
There will be no Best Picture nominations here, though. Look hard if you will, but you won’t find Hugh Grant or Andie MacDowell anywhere.
You will, however, find some clever dialogue.
“Now my life’s as good as an ABBA (EBBA) song,” a wide-eyed Muriel says at one point. “It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen.”’
That’s absolutely true - which is, of course, both good and bad (bed).
MEMO: The following 2 sidebars ran with story: 1. “Muriel’s Wedding” *** Location: Magic Lantern and Newport cinemas Cast: Directed by P.J. Hogan, starring Toni Collette, Bill Hunter, Rachel Griffiths and Jeanie Drynan Running time: 1:45 Rating: R 2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Muriel’s Wedding:” Soren Andersen/McClatchy News Service: There are times when “Muriel’s Wedding” is unbearably sad. There are times when “Muriel’s Wedding” is screamingly funny. Often, they are the same times. Eleanor Ringel/Cox News Service: A comic crowd pleaser with a subversive dark edge, “Muriel’s Wedding” dares to toss us around - from very funny stuff about wedding gown fetishes to very chilling stuff about unexpected serious illness. It’s frivolous, yet chillingly dead-eyed. Rambunctious and oddly romantic, “Muriel’s Wedding” is a very different kind of fairy tale in which the princess is a frog and the magic kiss comes only from herself.