Married to the blob

Muriel's Wedding tries to poke fun at soap opera. It ends up poking itself in the eye. Adam Mars-Jones prefers its companion short, the Oscar-winning British animation Bob's Birthday. Plus round-up

To judge by StrictlyBallroom and Muriel's Wedding, the favourite fairy-tale of the antipodes at the moment has to be the Ugly Duckling. Australia is now well past its phase of the "cultural cringe" (the assumption that everything worthwhile has to come from overseas), but with its first generation of internationally acclaimed directors - Weir, Schepisi, Beresford - now thoroughly Americanised, there is doubt whether Australian cinema can still turn out swans. Writer-director P J Hogan's solution is to take a domestic subject - the hell of family life in a small town in New South Wales - and to caricature his chosen setting, reserving his affection and his sentiment for the central character Muriel (Toni Collette), a homely dreamer with no particulartalent, unless loving Abba songs is a talent.

Muriel has four grubbing and inert younger siblings, a wheeler-dealer father who keeps telling them all they are useless, and a permanently dazed mother, mesmerised for instance by the rotation of the cup in the microwave when she "makes" "tea" .

Muriel's friends are bimbo-bitches from hell, Neighbours characters gone rancid, who sneer at her for having bad taste different from their own. It's true that Muriel could write a book about nasty earrings, but still it takes nerve to say "you've got no dignity, Muriel", as one hell-bimbo does, while dressed as a tropical aquarium herself.

Toni Collette makes a good job of Muriel, starting off in a sort of solemn dream-world not so different from her mother's, blossoming when she breaks out on her own. Installed in Sydney, she tells her sparky room-mate Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) that she doesn't listen to Abba songs any more because now her life is as good as an Abba song. Not just any Abba song. Her life is as good as "Dancing Queen".

The acting in minor roles is equally accomplished. The assistant in a brideswear shop describes a dress ("silk chantelle. Imported") in tones so reverent they sound like grief. It's as if Muriel wanted to view a body and not a frock.

The film moves to a couple of full-blooded comic climaxes in its first hour: a mimed version of "Waterloo" complete with the trademark Abba two- shoots (foreground face inprofile, background face full-on) and a slapstick sequence of Muriel more or less losing her virginity - she's giggling and snorting so hard that we can't tell where hysterics end and arousal begins. Then Muriel's Wedding goes for that old Terms of Endearment laughter- to-tears U-turn, not once but twice.

The film would be more convincing in poking fun at the world of soap opera if it didn't itself reach for the instant dramas of illness and breakdown, cancer and kleptomania in such a soapy way: "Oh God, I'm going to go bald and have to eat macrobiotic food" is a typically uneasy line, the dialogue adjusting rather too slowly to the change of tone.

The second time Muriel's Wedding gets serious is more effective, because the rest of the film finally catches up with Jeanie Drynan, who has all along been giving a performance as Muriel's mother that could come from a more ambitious film. Endlessly put upon and treated as a domestic zombie, her shiny, expressionless face nevertheless showing a sort of extinct hope, Drynan doesn't give in too much to the comedy of lines like "A blank cheque? How much for?" or - spoken to a daughter returning from a holiday she has paid for with stolen family money - "Did you bring me a present?" If everything about Muriel's Wedding was as good as this performance, it would be more than a mildly entertaining piece of work, a film that can't quite make up its mind whether it's a satire on Australian family life or a plea for the self-esteem of ugly ducklings everywhere.

Playing with Muriel's Wedding at a few London cinemas is Bob's Birthday, winner of this year's Oscar for Best Animated Short. It's well worth seeking out if you can't wait till June, when the ICA will screen a programme of British animation that also includes two other nominated films (Triangle and The Big Story). Bob's Birthday, written and directed by Alison Snowden and David Fine, is sharp and funny about mid-life, about social embarrassment, about potted plants, about dental floss and about the difficulty of blowing up balloons for a party without getting a headache.

The recent successes of our animated shorts at the Oscars and elsewhere are due to an emphasis on the ordinary, the untransformed - paradoxical in a medium where there are no limits to what can be shown. The result is a distinctive wryness and sense of limitation. Only in a British film would a man and his dog go to the moon for a cheese snack and be home before dark (Nick Park's A Grand Day Out). Briitsh animation has the modest adventureness of Philip Larkin wanting to go to China but only if he could come back the same day.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there