Cast: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Hunter, Sophie Lee
SUMMARY: Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is an overweight, awkward 22-year-old with few friends, no job and little family support who lives in Porpoise Spit, Australia. Muriel loves weddings and ABBA, and often dreams about her own wedding. She tries repeatedly to insinuate herself into a group of fashionable, popular girls (Tania, Nicole, Janine) who barely tolerate her and treat her badly. When these girls plan a vacation trip to Hibiscus Island, Muriel is desperate to go with them. While at dinner with her corrupt-politician Bill (Bill Hunter) one evening, Muriel is recruited into a cosmetics business run by Deidre Chambers (rumored to be Bill’s mistress). Muriel’s mother writes a blank check so that Muriel can buy some of the cosmetics kits to get started, but Muriel instead takes $12,000 from her parents’ account and goes to Hibiscus Island. The other girls are less than thrilled to see her, and tell her this rather bluntly, but Muriel seems unaffected. At dinner that evening, she meets Rhonda Epinstock (Rachel Griffiths), who once went to high school with Muriel. Rhonda takes an instant liking to Muriel, but is open in her disdain for the other girls, whom she promptly tells off. Muriel and Rhonda spend the rest of the vacation together, even winning a talent contest in which they dress up and lip-sync as ABBA. During this time, Muriel tells Rhonda that she has a fiancée named Tim Simms. When Muriel gets back home, she hears that her father is furious about her actions, and decides to move to Sydney and live with Rhonda. She gets a job in a video-rental store and changes her name to Mariel. She is even asked out by a customer, Brice Nobes, but that night at the girls’ apartment, Rhonda suddenly falls and announces that she cannot feel her legs. Mariel takes Rhonda to the hospital, and finally calls her family. She learns that the Federal Police are investigating her father, but refuses to return home. Eventually, the two girls learn that Rhonda has cancer in the form of a tumor on her spine. An operation is performed to remove the tumor, but Rhonda must re-learn how to walk. A stressed-out Mariel wanders into a bridal shop and tries on a dress, telling the clerk that her mother cannot see the dress because she has a tumor on her spinal cord. Out of sympathy, the clerk takes several Polaroids of Mariel in the dress, which Mariel uses to create a fake wedding album (which she keeps secret). Mariel helps Rhonda with her physical therapy, and at Rhonda’s insistence, promises that the two of them will never return to their hometown of Porpoise Spit — that she will care for Rhonda.
Rhonda’s spirits seem to return until she finds Mariel’s album and realizes that Mariel has visited nearly every bridal shop in Sydney, pretending to be a bride looking for a dress. She confronts Mariel with the album and the two get into a fight; when Mariel finally comes home, Rhonda announces that the cancer has returned. This time, the necessary operation will require the doctors to sever her spinal cord, rendering her paralyzed for life. Mariel begins searching magazines for eligible men, leaving Rhonda on her own; finally, Rhonda returns to Porpoise Spit to live with her mother. Mariel meets and agrees to marry David Van Arkle, a swimmer from South Africa who needs to get married to stay in Australia (visa fraud). Mariel is finally able to have her dream wedding, and when Rhonda refuses to be a bridesmaid, she allows Tania, Nicole and Janine to step in. Her father, now separated from her mother (nominally because of the investigation), attends the wedding with Deidre; her mother, forced to find a way on her own, arrives late but excitedly. Unfortunately, Mariel does not even notice her mother as she and David walk past. After the wedding, David makes it clear that he has no interest in any kind of real relationship with Mariel, but she accepts that. Back at home, Mariel’s mother accidentally shoplifts a pair of sandals and is arrested; Bill comes to bail her out, but cruelly mocks and berates her. He also finally announces that he wants a divorce so that he can marry Deidre. Not long after, Mariel receives a call that her mother has died: she committed suicide by taking a bottle of sleeping pills. Mariel finally realizes what the indifference and disrespect of she and her siblings did to her mother, and how it was compounded by the verbal and emotionally abusive behavior of Bill. Mariel also realizes that she is essentially living a lie, and that this will only cause more pain to those around her. She tells David, who has grown somewhat fond of Mariel, that she wants a divorce. Bill expects Mariel to stay in Porpoise Spit and take care of her siblings, but she announces that she is returning to Sydney. She pays back some of the money she took, promising that the rest will follow. Mariel then goes to Rhonda’s mother’s house and asks her to return to Sydney, too. Tania, Nicole and Janine are visiting, and are appalled at Mariel’s disregard for them and for Rhonda (yes, ironic), but Rhonda decides to take Mariel up on the offer, and the two leave with the blessing of Rhonda’s mother.
MY TAKE: For a comedy, there are a lot of rather sad things about this film. The one that really got to me was how the whole Heslop family treated their mother/wife, Betty. Bill is verbally and emotionally abusive, and blames Betty for everything that goes wrong. He also carries on a pretty obvious affair right under her nose. The kids are disrespectful and downright rude. The poor woman is not appreciated by anybody in her family, and seems to have made some sort of break with reality, where she ignores this behavior and maltreatment. The supermarket scene, when she accidentally steals sandals, made me really sad, and frankly I wasn’t all that surprised that she committed suicide. It’s also pretty sad how Mariel/Muriel is so desperate to be friends with the popular girls, even when they’re bluntly nasty to her. Their behavior is cruel, but it’s heartbreaking that Muriel is so desperate that she keeps going back to them. Rhonda did a world of good for her, but then Mariel abandons Rhonda when things get tough. Thankfully she eventually comes to her senses, but clearly she had to learn a lot about herself, and make a lot of mistakes, along the way. I love ABBA, so the music of this film was great — really got to love the lip-syncing scene. If you’re wondering, like I was, Toni Collette was not that heavy in real life — she gained about 40 pounds for the role. I wish there was a little happier ending, but it’s not bad.
RATING: Okay — good music.