Another Australia Day has come and gone, and by way of postscript to last week's brace of Cate I thought I'd make a small observation about Aussie movies in general - that is, that stories that would be of no interest whatsoever if set in America, Britain, France or Sweden become oddly watchable simply by virtue of being set in Australia. Indeed, in the Nineties, the Lucky Country's local cinema capitalized on this to great global profit. The secret is the mismatch between the yarn and the national image: You'd expect its dramas to be raw and rugged and tell earnest tales of nation-building and identity-forging in a wild desolate interior, and its comedies to be blokey, ocker, and 4X-sodden. Instead, Australia hit the multiplex bigtime with tales of suburban aspiration in which most of the beefy blokiness on the distaff side. You could have set Strictly Ballroom in Florida or Oxfordshire, but the idea of it is funnier in Australia, because the idea of Australian ballroom dancers is funnier than English ballroom dancers. Likewise, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is more interesting in Alice Springs than it would be in Nevada: If your sense of Oz comes from Crocodile Dundee and the Crocodile Hunter, the notion that there are drag queens who are big Down Under is quite an arresting thought.
In reality, as we see in the ScoMo homo crisis of recent days, Australia is as gay as anywhere else in the west these days. As for suburban gentility, the more recent cultural mismatch of A Few Best Men, in which the groom's posse of Cockney oiks disrupts a respectable Aussie wedding, may be closer to the truth. And yet my generalization holds: the most tired narrative premise can be refreshed just by being relocated to the Antipodes.
Thus Muriel's Wedding, a big hit in 1994 written and directed by PJ Hogan and pulling out all the usual garish tacky stops of its era: the screen is an explosion of Day-Glo, just like Strictly Ballroom; the soundtrack wallows in Abba, just like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; and, in the role of Muriel's dad, there's reliable old Bill Hunter, Priscilla's garage mechanic and Ballroom's dance-hall dictator. Once upon a time, he made films like Gallipoli; but then he met his Waterloo or, at any rate, Abba's "Waterloo". The film opens with the falsetto ululations of kitsch pop, the Rubettes' "Sugar Baby Love"; the extras are a riot of granite-jawed Aussie maidenhood in pinks and turquoises and leopard skins; the locale is the Queensland resort of Porpoise Spit — a small town with a funny name (bad sign); wherein Muriel orders an umbrella-sprouting fruit-clogged cocktail called an Orgasm — a large drink with a funny name (worse sign)...
The eponymous Muriel is a social misfit who fantasizes about a glamorous wedding to a hunky dreamboat who'll spirit her away from Porpoise Spit to the grand life in Sydney. The local girls are shallow and cruel; the eligible bachelors in town have names like "Chook", and, when you strongarm them into partaking of the benefit of clergy, they shag your bridesmaid at the wedding reception. In the old days, the most important decision you made in a comedy is when and what your first laugh is: it sets the tone for the rest of the story. But PJ Hogan throws everything at you from the word go and hopes enough of it sticks. So we struggle out from under the pile-up of lousy songs, burly sheilas, loud gear, backroom bonks, everything and the kitchen sink (Muriel's mum likes to make a nice cup of tea in the microwave). Where conventional comedy has a ruthless disciplined logic, Hogan's plot hinges on such devices as a white South African swimmer who needs an arranged marriage so he can acquire Australian citizenship and thereby compete in the next Olympics. But hang on a minute - this is 1994; Nelson Mandela's running things in Pretoria, and South African teams are back in world sports, at the Commonwealth Games in British Columbia and at the Test cricket and all the rest. So hasn't the plot point about a South African athlete who can't compete on the world stage been rendered obsolete by history? Ah, yes, but, in Hogan's tale, it seems that South Africa has been re-banned from international competition because a race war's broken out. Now that's what I call a MacGuffin: in order to facilitate Muriel's nuptials, thousands of black South Africans have to be slaughtered somewhere off-screen.
As a comedy, Muriel's Wedding is a disaster. But, as a disaster, it's rather touching. After half an hour of crab-shell bikinis and karaoke and gags-a-go-go, Muriel scrams to Sydney where her fast-talkin', loose-livin' pal Rhonda suddenly gets cancer. Cancer! Closely followed by bankruptcy, family disintegration and suicide — all three of which Muriel is largely responsible for, unlike the off-screen genocide in the Transvaal. I began to wonder whether Hogan had set out to show that comedy has consequences. But what's unnerving about the film is that its lurches of mood and tempo are quite haphazard. I love the way you never know what's going to happen next. Whenever you think it's settling down to a feelgood movie, it suddenly becomes breezy and off-hand: "They've accused him of raping a Japanese tourist," moans the bride of the aforementioned Chook. "Which is ridiculous. Chook hates the Japanese." I wonder if they'd use that line today.
What makes the film are splendid performances by two fine actresses at the dawn of their careers - Toni Collette, who put on forty pounds to bulk up for Muriel, and Rachel Griffiths, as Muriel's friend Rhonda, the only truly likeable character in sight. I see this is the third week running I've mentioned the Aussie barristerial telly romp "Rake", but in our comments a week or so back Mark Steyn Club member Ken Costa mentioned Miss Griffiths' memorable guest shot as a right-wing "shock jock", which reminds me that Miss Collette was almost as good as the shagadelic Premier of New South Wales. They're both terrific players at the peak of their game, but back then they were pretty good, too. As the aforementioned only likeable character, Rhonda winds up in a wheelchair, and so Muriel helps her out and does all that tough-love buddy-movie wisecracking we're familiar with from Hollywood. And then she abandons her.
According to Hogan, Muriel is based on him. I hope he's joking, because, if so, he must be a first-class sh*t. Muriel is a big galumphing old lump, so one assumes, per the conventions of comedic formula, that unlike the svelter girls she has the proverbial heart of gold. But, if beauty is only skin-deep, ugliness can penetrate: under the plain-jane exterior, Muriel steals from her family, reduces them to penury, destroys her mother's health, dumps her siblings... Her dad at least works hard to be a scheming bastard; Muriel is just casually careless and uncaring. It's a quality she shares with the film itself - and I mean that as a compliment. To return to where we came in, and my point about boring things being less boring for being moved Down Under, after last year's grisly Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, I never want to see Meryl Streep within two hundred miles of an Abba song ever again. Whereas, in Muriel's Wedding, the gorgeous, exhilarating duet to "Waterloo" with Rhonda and Muriel as Porpoise Spit's Frida and Agnetha has a kind of transcendence: tackiness turned triumphal, and then true.
~With his ever mounting legal bills from college-loan cockwomble Cary Katz and his litigious "Blaze Media", Mark is taking to the road and joining the great Dennis Miller on tour. Next month they'll be together on stage for the first time, starting in Reading, Pennsylvania and Syracuse, New York - and with VIP tickets you not only enjoy premium seating but get to meet Dennis and Mark after the show.
Much of our content at SteynOnline is made possible through the support of members of The Mark Steyn Club. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, aside from an audio Book of the Month Club and a video poetry circle, it's also a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time (the latest was this last Tuesday), and a live music club (check out our annual Twelfth Night edition of On the Town). More details here.