Overweight, overdone, over here

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The Independent Culture
THE GOOD and the bad have always had a better crack at movie stardom than the ugly. Virtue and vice make a good Hollywood story, but plainness is plain boring. So the big screen shrinks from grotesquerie, insisting that for every beast there must also be a beauty. Part of the huge antipodean success of Muriel's Wedding (15) has been down to its attempt to strike a blow against comeliness. It redresses the balance by putting a hefty heroine, Muriel (Toni Collette), on the scales, and showing that her charms outweigh those of the svelte, the tanned and the pretty. This is a movie with a message as sunny as its summer setting: that it's not physical or material attributes that matter, but being yourself. The story has a sweet, fairytale morality - not the tale of the ugly duckling, but the ugly dumpling. And it may make you feel good enough not to notice that it's largely a lie.

We open at a wedding, with the bouquet landing in the hands of the one person least likely to fulfil its prophecy. Muriel receives it with the gauche giggle which is her response to all experience, full of good nature but no joy. Her Barbie-doll school-friends demand she hand the bouquet on to someone more suitable. These early scenes capture the loneliness of the unattractive, the sense of being a perpetual outsider, a voyeur at the feast of life. Muriel watches in appalled delight as the groom tempts his bride's best friend into taking the role of maid of dishonour.

Back home, life is equally grim. Muriel stews in front of the television with her brothers and sisters - an assortment of slobs and blobs - and her cowed mother (Jeanie Drynan), receiving the odd harangue from her disgusted father (Bill Hunter). Muriel's only refuge is her bedroom, a shrine to Abba, and her collection of Abba records, with their fast track to euphoria. Given a blank cheque by her mother to spend on a beauty course, Muriel steals off to a holiday resort. There she meets an old school-friend, also an outsider, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), whose spunky defiance transforms Muriel's life. Together they don white satin trouser- suits and give an uproarious disco performance of Abba's "Waterloo".

Oddly, this "Waterloo" turns out to be the film's Waterloo. It should really have been the ecstatic, Strictly Ballroom-style climax. But it cues a change of mood, as Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer of the spine, which confines her to a wheelchair. It's a switch to a sombre movie that director PJ Hogan then flunks out of making. Rhonda's affliction comes to seem a callous plot device, and we resent so exuberant a character being stifled. The search for solemnity in disease is now a stock light- comedy device: Peter's Friends played the illness card, and so did Four Weddings and a Funeral. The tally in Muriel's Wedding is two weddings and a funeral. Hogan shoots the nuptials more sharply than Mike Newell, and his editing is superbly punchy.

Yet he seems to have lost confidence in a black comedy of family dysfunction that could have been truly memorable, even Beckettian, and settled for phoney uplift and simplistic moralising. The villain of the piece is Muriel's father (the wonderful Bill Hunter, who played an equally dyspeptic dad in The Last Days of Chez Nous), a disappointed politician and small-time fixer, who stifles his family with his obsession with status and advancement.

The moral of the film is that success can only come from within: Hogan has said that the movie is about "self-esteem". And yet one of its chief themes is Muriel and Rhonda's blind desire to break free of the shackles of their provincial resort town, Porpoise Spit, and find freedom in Sydney. Their longing for fresh pastures is as materialistic as Muriel's father's soulless quest for preferment, and yet the film presents it as a crusade. Toni Collette, as Muriel, is the movie's greatest charm, but also its most damaging limitation. She put on weight for the part, and it's hard ever to believe in her as an ostracised misfit. With her grinning, chameleonic face, and big, merry eyes, she seems just a diet or two away from being a knockout.

The courageous film to have made would have been about Muriel's sister, whose double chins and shapeless body would never fit movie stardom - unless the star was Charles Laughton. Still, the movies have always been over-anxious to keep up appearances, and though Muriel's Wedding deceives itself, it has just about enough charm and comic brio to make you willingly accept the con as well.

Once Were Warriors (18) is a movie from Down Under (the biggest success in New Zealand box-office history) that does not pull its punches. Sometimes you wish it would. The scene in which the heroine (Rena Owen) is beaten up by her macho, beer-swilling husband (Temuera Morrison), for refusing to cook some eggs for his mates, is hard to watch - a succession of blows and kicks, without pity or restraint. The scene next morning, when he greets her bruised, swollen face with "You look awful, clean yourself up", is even more repulsive. The violence, though, is neither gratuitous nor sensationalised, and it is accompanied by a buzzing on the soundtrack, like a warrior chant, which suggests that it is both an ancestral curse and a baleful elemental force.

The movie is bleakly photographed by Stuart (The Piano) Dryburgh, in dark hues that seem to smoulder on the screen. New Zealand, so often seen on screen as lush, pastoral and Edenic, is here a wasteland of corrugated iron and grey, slab-like houses. The men wear T-shirts and tattoos that make Harvey Keitel's face-paint in The Piano look discreet. The acting gets better and better (especially Owen as the long-suffering wife and Morrison as her posturing husband) as the brutality gets worse and worse. Your surprise at such a downer earning big box-office is lessened by an ending that, though heart-breaking, opens the door to redemption. Satisfyingly, the film does not so much condemn violence as show the appalling redundancy of lives, without pride or spirit, reduced to violence alone. The title's warriors are ideals which modern machismo debases.

Poetic Justice (18) continues the sad decline of the new black cinema into squabbling obscenity and facile nihilism. John Singleton, whose Boyz 'N the Hood at least had a semblance of dramatic shape and feeling, has here strung a tirade of abuse around the journey of two guys and two girls (one of them played by Janet Jackson) from Los Angeles to Oakland. Jackson's amateur poet, Justice (I'm afraid so) reads a stream of New Age doggerel on the soundtrack. In a film so devoid of wit or humanity it's almost welcome.

In the Review: the making of `Once Were Warriors', page 26; cinema details, page 82.