Acceptability is a theme that comes up time and time again as I overthink the films I see. Achieving and maintaining acceptability is often essential to navigating the social sphere, yet also so fraught with paradoxical traps and narrowly-struck balances, it might as well be obtained by switching it with a bag of sand from a booby-trapped pedestal. Consider marriage. Weddings are often part of a happy ending, the culmination of a character arc about a couple who meet or whose relationship deepens due to the events of the movie. We expect the romantic love that our overwhelmingly heterosexual casts of characters experience to lead to marriage, just as we expect marriage to be a milestone in every person’s life. But be warned: despite the expectation to get married being a given, the desire to get married– especially if it’s a general goal– is a hallmark of the immature and the unstable (and usually female characters, what a coincidence). If you don’t get married by a certain age (especially you, ladies), you’re weird. But just, you know, be cool about it.
Muriel’s Wedding features a fat protagonist who is caught up in this paradox. The titular role was a breakout performance for Toni Collette, and it is often noted that she gained 40 pounds for the part. Muriel Heslop lives with her family in a small Australian tourist town full of small-minded people. She talks repeatedly about being a success, being someone, which is synonymous with her getting married. Carrying out traditionally feminine roles, especially marriage, is a major focus of the women in her life. The opening scene is frenemy Tania’s (Sophie Lee) wedding reception, as the tossed bridal bouquet plummets like a missile in slow motion from a cloudless sky, an image that repeats to break the film into three chapters (the first titled “The Bouquet”). When Muriel catches it from among a gaggle of single women, the others act as though catching the bride’s bouquet is tantamount to a law, instead of a superstitious ritual. Her friends tell her that she’s being “selfish” for catching it. “What’s the use of you having it, Muriel?,” her “friend” Janine (Belinda Jarrett) asks, “You’re never going to get married. You’ve never even had a boyfriend.” Even after Tania finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, she insists that she loves him, and as a bride, she’s “supposed to be euphoric.” Muriel’s friends decide to accompany Tania on her honeymoon trip and dump Muriel because she doesn’t fit their “mad” party image, explaining that she doesn’t wear the right clothing, listen to the right music, and– of course– is fat.
Muriel’s parents, Bill (Bill Hunter) and Betty (Jeanie Drynan), also fat characters, are the only married couple in the film. Betty especially is absorbed in her role as wife and mother. A quiet, absent-minded woman, she is obedient to her husband to the point of repeating him word for word when he tells her to do something and actively ignoring his poorly-concealed affair with thinner, glamorous cosmetics salesperson Deirdre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson). Bill is a city councilman who is obsessed with his image as a powerful man with powerful connections, constantly frustrated by his unemployed, “useless” children, whom he complains about and berates in front of his business associates.
Despite her flawed home life, Muriel longs to get married, which she equates with success and making something of herself. She lives in a dreamworld, covering her bedroom wall with photos of brides, listening obsessively to ABBA, and compulsively lying and shoplifting. In the context of her friends and family, however, the audience is apt to show more compassion for her idealistic escapism. Not until Muriel reconnects with her former classmate Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths) does she have an alternative to longing for a wedding day. Rhonda is a vivacious, chain-smoking troublemaker. “Stick with me because I’m wicked too,” she tells Muriel, assuming that her new-found friend is stepping out on a nonexistent fiancee. Rhonda admires Muriel for coming out of her shell and cheerfully informs Tania that her husband is sleeping with Nicole (Pippa Grandison), one of her sycophants. Rhonda and Muriel cement their bond through a lipsynced performance of “Waterloo” at a talent show, while Tania and Nicole brawl in the audience. Unwilling to return home and face her dad, from whom she’s stolen thousands of dollars, Muriel runs away to Sydney to live with Rhonda.
The repeated image of the bridal bouquet heralds in the second act, entitled “Sydney: City of Brides.” Formerly preoccupied with the fantasy of becoming someone else, Muriel makes it happen in Sydney. She changes her name to Mariel (“marry-el”). She gets a job at a video store, where she obsessively watches a tape of Diana and Charles’ royal wedding. She changes her look, forgoing a wavy ponytail and leopard print in an attempt to look like Tania for a straightened bob and leather pants, more akin to Rhonda’s style. When Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer, Mariel takes care of her. When Rhonda protests that she’s a burden, Mariel explains what their friendship has meant to her:
“When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I’d just stay in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. Sometimes I’d stay in there all day. But since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one ABBA song. It’s because now my life’s as good as an ABBA song. It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen’.”
Mariel’s life with Rhonda fulfills the emotional needs previously met by listening to ABBA. Instead of music that prioritizes the harmonizing of two female voices, Muriel has a life centered around her friendship with another woman, where she has the power to reinvent herself. Although Mariel’s family still insists on calling her Muriel, Rhonda honors her friend’s new name without hesitation. Despite the external changes, though, Mariel is still connected to her past as Muriel Heslop of Porpoise Spit. Her family feels the repercussions of her stealing, and her father is brought up on charges of accepting bribes, which he claims he was forced to do after Muriel cleaned out his bank account. Also, she still longs to be a bride, and makes a hobby out of trying on wedding gowns at every boutique in Sydney. She sees marriage as the ultimate step in her transformation, being able to leave behind the perception the folks back home have of her once and for all:
“If I can get married it means I’ve changed, I’m a new person… Because who would want to marry me… I’m not her anymore, I’m me… Muriel Heslop! Stupid, fat, and useless! I hate her! I’m not going back to being her again.”
This obsession drives a wedge between her and Rhonda. The two women face their individual situations in very different ways. Rhonda is transformed involuntarily, as a life-saving surgery takes her ability to walk. She survives by clinging to who she knows herself to be, continuing to smoke, wear combat boots, and tell people off when they condescend to her for being in a wheelchair. Mariel runs from her loneliness and painful past through self-transformation and lies. Her quest for a husband further separates her from Rhonda. She meets David Van Arckle (Daniel Lapaine), a South African swimmer who is looking for a marriage of convenience so he can compete in the Olympics on the Australian team. Mariel leaves her friend without help and unable to pay the rent, giving Rhonda no choice but to move back to Porpoise Spit with her mother.
The third act is entitled “Mariel’s Wedding:” at first glance a culmination of the story, but slightly off in some significant ways. Tania and the other girls from Porpoise Spit are her bridesmaids, while a neglected Rhonda sits off to the side. A giddy Mariel marches down the aisle to “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do,” apparently needing ABBA in her life again. The congregants don’t look happy for her, but rather stare at her as if she is a spectacle. Her groom is reluctant and stunned. Although Bill walks her down the aisle, Betty is not present, arriving late and sitting in the back. Deirdre takes her place as mother of the bride and Mariel marches past her without acknowledging her. On their wedding night, David asks Mariel what kind of person would marry someone they don’t even know. When she points out that he has done the same thing, he insists defensively, “I want to win. All my life, I’ve wanted to win.” “Me too,” she responds. Mariel has achieved her goal, her transformation is supposedly complete, but Rhonda confronts her after the ceremony and tries to give her friend a reality check: “Mariel Van Arckle stinks. She’s not half the person Muriel Heslop was.”
Mariel seems content to sit in her living room and watch her wedding video over and over, but the fantasy ends with the news of her mother’s death. After accidentally shoplifting a pair of sandals and needing Bill to bail her out (he tells the cops that she’s “not quite right”), he decides to leave her for Deirdre once and for all, making her feel as useless as he tells his children they are: “They say I wasn’t elected to the state government that time because my family wasn’t up to scratch… I never had a bloody chance.” Even in her death, Bill tries to force Betty into the role of diffident mother. Deirdre makes an off-key attempt at comforting Mariel by telling her that Betty’s death was a “sacrifice” that will convince the judge to go easy on Bill at his trial. “She’ll be glad in the end her life amounted to something,” she says, before making passive-aggressive digs at Betty’s housekeeping skills. Joanie (Gabby Millgate), Muriel’s fat sister who has largely spent the film smirking at her older sister, tearfully reveals that Betty committed suicide, but that Bill got rid of the pills she used to cover it up. However, Betty’s anger and hurt can’t be totally erased: Muriel’s little brother tells her that their mother set the backyard on fire because their brother wouldn’t mow it.
The breaking point for Mariel is Betty’s funeral, where Bill is preoccupied with his ability to get a faxed message of condolence from a former prime minister, and Betty’s eulogy states that Mariel’s wedding was the happiest day of her life. Mariel runs out of the church, where David is waiting for her. She breaks up with him, finally accepting that their marriage is a lie and can’t continue: “I tell so many lies, one day I won’t know I’m doing it.” (Of course, she does this after they sleep together.) She also restores use of the name she was given at birth.
In breaking up with David, Muriel embarks on a new, honest chapter in her life, but also leaves behind the world that her father, and by extension the rest of Porpoise Spit, in which success means building an attractive, happy personal image, at the expense of relationships with others. Bill is relentless in talking about himself as an influential man, the savior of Porpoise Spit who brings in resorts and high rises, the father who dumps his devoted wife for a glitzy businesswoman uninterested in caring for his children. Tania is hellbent on riding the wave of high school popularity as long as she can, maintaining her beautiful party girl image and forcing herself to be happy in her marriage, even though neither her nor her husband have much stake in commitment (“But Rose Biggs sucked your husband’s cock!” “I know. I sucked her husband’s cock, and it made me realize, we all make mistakes.”) Even the town of Porpoise Spit is built on tourism, relying on an image of happiness and fun in order to survive. Her entire world is founded in deception, but only Muriel seems to be characterized as a liar and cheat, excessive fat girl Muriel who is arrested for shoplifting during her friend’s wedding and dumped by her so-called friends for her inability to cultivate a specific image as successfully as they. It’s telling that Muriel doesn’t lose any weight over the events of the film; her look changes, but becomes more low key and is not remarked on. The film shows her becoming a more authentic, honest person, something that doesn’t require weight loss or a makeover.
Throughout the movie, Rhonda is the only one interested in rooting for Muriel as she really is. She actively chooses to befriend dorky Muriel over Tania and her friends, she inspires Muriel to leave Porpoise Spit. She even overlooks Muriel’s lies about being engaged, and is only angry when Muriel abandons her in her time of need. Rhonda’s friendship is the natural source of redemption for Muriel. Muriel breaks up with her family, giving her dad a portion of the money she stole from him and telling him that he has to take responsibility for her siblings “and tell them they’re not useless.” Free of Bill’s influence, Muriel then rescues Rhonda, who is living with her overbearing mother and tortured by social calls from Tania and company. Rhonda forgives Muriel, calls Tania and her friends a bunch of cocksuckers, and immediately leaves for Sydney with her friend. Outraged (despite having copped to sucking someone’s cock a minute earlier), Tania chases them to the taxi, screaming defensively, “Who do you think you are to call me [a cocksucker]? I’m married! I’m beautiful!” Neither Muriel (for whom Tania feels contempt) nor Rhonda (for whom Tania feels pity) are “on her level,” so it’s unthinkable that they should have the last word.
Even though Muriel and Rhonda don’t have a romantic relationship, their love for each other is as redemptive and optimistic a happy ending as one would expect to find in a typical romantic comedy. Riding to the airport together, the two friends leave behind them a suffocating community and reliance on their naysaying families, finding something more important than acceptability in each other: a relationship where they can make mistakes and need help, without shame or rejection. Rhonda and Muriel shout their goodbyes to Porpoise Spit, and “Dancing Queen” plays, as Muriel’s happiness has once more become lived instead of listened to.