What do Pretty Woman, Working Girl, and Ever After have in common? They’re all remakes of the Cinderella story. In fact, the tale of a young woman going from rags to riches (and snaring a wealthy man in the process) is one of the oldest and most popular stories of all time. There are, without fail, at least one or two loose or direct adaptations of Cinderella released as a movie every year. Although there may be modern spins on the story (Working Girl sees her as a secretary under the spiteful hand of her evil boss), the tale is so ingrained in our conscious that if a female character is down on her luck when a film begins, we expect her to work her way out of said hole. Pygmalion has created the same expectations for women who are unattractive and uncouth in a film’s beginning (though was Audrey Hepburn ever unattractive in My Fair Lady?). Muriel’s Wedding wants you to believe it’s a surrealist, Australian take on Cinderella, but by the time the credits roll, it’s left an entire genre battered in its wake.

America (except for perhaps in recent years) has never really adapted surrealism as a mainstream form of comedy. Broad sophomoric antics and a standard joke-pun-reaction structure rule the day. Even among (American) independent film makers, there’s more of a reliance on socially awkward tension and dark malaise than excursions into whimsy. The two most successful American comedies that embrace surrealism were flops when they came out and only garnered critical and commercial love later, The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. P.J. Hogan’s brutal and darkly comic Muriel’s Wedding slides back and forth between nearly grating levels of quirkiness and surrealism on to gut-wrenching moments of drama and real life. While the emotional rollercoaster the film presents may be too much for some, it’s whole-hearted deconstruction of the Cinderella fantasy and its visceral capture of the total emotional spectrum makes it one of the most compelling (if flawed) comedies I’ve seen in years.

Muriel (Little Miss Sunshine‘s Toni Collette) is a shy, homely chronic liar who is nearly sent to prison at the beginning of the film by wearing a stolen wedding dress to her best friend’s wedding. Except, she (and the other women that Toni finds to be her friends) isn’t really Muriel’s friend, and her whole female peer group unceremoniously dumps her at a bar as they plan a group getaway, leaving Muriel a hysterically weeping mess. In truth, the closest thing that Muriel has to a real friend is her ABBA records which she’ll listen to for days at a time without leaving her house. With no looks, no personality, and no career prospects (she’s a high school drop out that also failed out of secretarial school), Muriel’s life has gone nowhere and will go nowhere. But, one day, her father cuts her a blank check for a possible beauty salesman job that Muriel instead uses to go on a lavish vacation that changes her life forever.

I was actually left somewhat cold by the beginning of the film (though it all makes sense later) because it wasn’t especially funny. Muriel’s life is almost satirically pathetic. Her father (Bill Hunter) is an obviously crooked businessman. She and the rest of her siblings are layabouts who milk their parents for whatever meager benefits they can while contributing nothing in return. Her mother (Jeanie Drynan) loves her children but is passive and submissive to the point of oblivious, and her most beloved daughter, Muriel, cares nothing for her. Muriel isn’t your average “quirky” film heroine. She’s awkward to the point of causing the audience physical pain to watch her stumble her way through life. It makes her dramatic change after meeting Rachel Griffith’s Rhoda all the more surprising, but by not knowing where the film’s final two acts were heading, the beginning of Muriel‘s Wedding sends the false impression that the film’s comedy will be flat.

However, the film picks up, when Muriel takes her vacation to the same resort get away that her friends had no intention of taking her. She is rejected by them almost immediately and her public degradation continues. Muriel’s life is forever altered when she meets the wild and rebellious Rhoda (Six Feet Under‘s Rachel Griffiths) at the resort bar. While Rhoda went to the same high school as Muriel, Muriel never spoke to anyone and Rhoda left town. She doesn’t know how pathetic Muriel’s life is and Muriel is able to convince her she has a fiancee and that she’s a successful saleswoman (the latter being the same lie she’s fed her family about her trip). Rhoda inspires Muriel to actually live her life (even if the details of said life are a lie), stand up to the girls who looked down on her, and after a brief return to her parents’ house, move to Sydney to finally start a life of her own. As Muriel (who changes her name to Mariel) and Rhoda live the fast life in Sydney, tragedy, hypocrisy, and lies wait around the corner to devastate their new friendship.

From the moment that Rhoda and Muriel do a side-splitting rendition of ABBA’s “Waterloo” at the resort talent show (interspersed with Muriel’s faux-friends getting into a massive cat-fight), Muriel’s Wedding springs to life. Muriel begins the film a frumpy, poorly-kept mess, and while Toni Collette is never going to be pretty by any standard (I know. I know. It’s a terrible thing to say.), she gets a nice make-over that makes her look like an actually presentable person (instead of some bad caricature of everything wrong with 1980s fashion as how she starts the film). That’s the Pygmalion side of the film. There’s a riotous scene where Muriel is attempting to have sex (presumably for the first time) with a new boyfriend (as Rhoda has an orgy with two American sailors in her bedroom) that is perhaps one of the most hysterical, awkward, and painful love scenes ever. It also marks the drastic tonal shift that comes out of left field (which I will not explain for fear of spoiling the film).

However, when the film changes moods, just let me say that Muriel’s Wedding goes for the knockout punch. After spending the first half of the film setting up how low Muriel had become and then helping her rise, we quickly discover that Muriel doesn’t just want to be happy or better. She wants fantasy at the expense of an already pleasant reality. She keeps lying to her only real friend about her non-existent fiancee and everything else about her life. Muriel’s creates such a complicated web of fantasy that it’s inevitable that it will all come crashing down on her. The genius part of the film is that it allows Muriel’s lies to give her all the things a girl in a Cinderella fantasy could want: wealth, a husband, the adoration and jealousy of her peers. But, you also see the spiritual toll that her deceit and betrayal takes on her and Rhoda, especially in Rhoda’s ultimate moment of need.

Every time you think that the film can’t go to a darker place, it does. The film regularly interplays pitch-black, About Schmidt style comedy with outrageous humor. You may find yourself laughing til your sides hurt one second only to be on the verge of tears (the non-laughter variety) the very next. That’s what life is like though (although hopefully yours is full of less sad sacks than Muriel’s) and P.J.’s Hogan captures love, death, friendship, betrayal, depression, isolation, hope, and renewal. I’ve seen Muriel’s Wedding referred to as a feel-good comedy, but this was the most emotionally draining film I’d watched since Synecdoche, New York. It ultimately has a hopeful and positive message about life which is that Muriel can change her position, she can escape the dour fatalism of her early film life, but she has to embrace her roots and learn to be herself, not the idealized version she thinks she should be. Yet, you wander through a parade of misery and tragedy to get there. Once again, that’s life.

The performances from the two female leads are flawless. Along with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Sally Hawkins Happy-Go-Lucky, Toni Collette has delivered what should be one of the definitive female comedic performances of all time. Muriel becomes nearly so deluded with the fantasies that she’s created for her life that she starts to buy into them herself. Her idea of drastically changing her identity is to change one syllable in her name (Muriel to Mariel) and create wild lies. She convinces bridal shop owners that her mother is dying so she can try on a million wedding dresses and have her picture taken. She’s willing to marry a man just for money and still manages to convince herself that it’s a fairy tale blessing. When her illusions are shattered (and those close to her call her on her bullshit), she withdraws into the hysterical, broken girl she really is. Toni Collette bravely consumes herself in this complex and demanding role.

Fans of Six Feet Under know Rachel Griffith’s ability to take on volatile roles. Brenda was easily the most dynamic character on SFU. Rhoda manages to nearly steal the show from Muriel. When Rhoda first appears, Muriel is still queen of Pathetic-ville, and her joie de vivre and “take no bullshit” attitude imbues the film with the charm and wit it needed to not be too depressing. And as the film progresses, she continues to up the ante to still seem wild in comparison to the newly free Muriel, until the film violently shoves the audience back to Earth with a side of Rhoda that starkly changes her character. Just like Toni Collette (and the emotional range of the film itself), Rachel Griffiths takes Rhoda through an emotional maelstrom, and you’re never once left doubting the veracity of her performance.

If you find yourself tired of the same, conventional staid Hollywood romances, Muriel’s Wedding is as drastic a departure from the norm as possible. It may drag slightly at the beginning, and some moments ring as artificial (and even worse, kitsch), but for a brutally honest story of growing up and self-realization, Muriel’s Wedding is another classic cult comedy from Australia. Toni Collette was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. If you can make it through its rough introduction, you are rewarded with a film that gets to the truth that so many of us can’t face. We are ourselves, and while we can always improve ourself, we will never be something that we aren’t. If we try, we’re just destroying ourselves and hurting those that love us.

Final Score: A-