You’re Incredible, Muriel!

Director Jono McLeod, whose debut feature My Old School is out now, on the first film he fell in love with: Muriel’s Wedding.

Do you know how hard it is to remove a chewed-up, saliva-soaked Jelly Baby that’s been spat halfway up a cinema screen? You can’t just get a ladder and put it against the screen, you’ll rip it. The best I could figure was to get a clean-ish broom, stand on my tiptoes and gently brush at this unexpected film star. He and his friends would go on to make regular appearances in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie throughout that summer of 1995. It was quite the craze.

It was the summer Val Kilmer was Batman and Stallone was Judge Dredd. I was rocking a polyester waistcoat and bow tie, working as an usher at the multiplex in my hometown of Clydebank, a faded former shipbuilding hub to the west of Glasgow. I was 17. Not old enough to buy a ticket to see Elizabeth Berkeley licking a pole in Showgirls, but old enough to mop the floor afterwards. There was stuff to mop.

Jono McLeod’s high school yearbook photo, as seen in his debut feature My Old School.

I was about to graduate high school and all my classmates seemed to have their futures mapped out on multiple acceptance letters from prestigious universities, which they’d waved proudly around the playground. With my grade predictions, I wasn’t heading anywhere but the multiplex’s trash compactor. God, it stunk. A sweet sickness of hot dogs and soda syrup, nacho cheese and Baskin-Robbins. I’d spin the bulging bags like a shot putt, up, over and in, praying the bin juice didn’t spray me. The trash bags were multi-purpose. We’d fill them with leftover popcorn at the end of each day to reheat and resell the next. It was terrible. But it wasn’t as terrible as the Australian girl I fell in love with there.

Muriel’s Wedding is a masterpiece of cinema. Don’t believe the guy in the bin juice-soaked waistcoat? Pipe down, it’s Ridley Scott’s favorite film too. Muriel Heslop is an unemployed, socially awkward Abba fan and occasional shoplifter, who lives in the Australian Gold Coast town of Porpoise Spit. She dreams of one day getting married but, having failed high school, is aimlessly drifting through her twenties, with her father bemoaning Muriel and her siblings as “a bunch of useless no-hopers.” When the school friends who’ve barely tolerated her up till now tell her she can’t come on a planned vacation or even hang around them anymore, Muriel is devastated. Taking a job as a beauty consultant, working for her father’s mistress, Muriel comes up with a ruse to embezzle his money. With the stolen funds, Muriel jets off on the girls trip anyway, much to the horror of her former friends. It’s there that she meets a long-lost schoolfriend, Rhonda Epinstalk, who’ll change Muriel’s life forever, making it “better than an Abba song. Better than ‘Dancing Queen.’”

Director P.J. Hogan grew up in the town of Coolangatta, which doubles for the fictional Porpoise Spit in the film, but he soon took off for Sydney, leaving his younger sister to deal with their bullying father. She took a job as a beauty consultant, working with their father’s mistress but there was some financial impropriety and, well … the rest is movie history.

Toni Colette in Muriel’s Wedding.

At the heart of Muriel’s Wedding is one of the all-time great film performances. Toni Collette’s Muriel is heartbreakingly goofy, seriously sweet and unwittingly hilarious. But Rachel Griffiths as Rhonda matches every punch. Together, it’s a tour de force that I could happily watch again and again and again. And that summer of 1995, I did. I’d settle the paying masses into Street Fighter, a movie which held little interest for me even though it starred my previous great Aussie love, Kylie Minogue. Once I’d seated the last of them, my little torch would be carried across the corridor to steal some time with Muriel.

Back then, Australia was foreign to us, but not alien. We grew up with Glaswegian accents inflecting upwards from a steady diet of the rival Aussie soap operas Neighbours (starring the aforementioned Kylie) and Home & Away (starring Kylie’s sister, Dannii Minogue). Australia was like America but nowhere near as cool, and that’s what made it so appealing.

Australia was so uncool, it exploded for Abba back in the late ’70s. By God, that country loved those singing Swedes, even when the rest of the world had seemingly lost interest. The Aussies kept them, held them close and, when they were ready, gave Abba back to us. They gave it back in the form of Muriel’s Wedding. Following a bad experience with a Swedish filmmaker, Benny and Björn took a lot of convincing to license so many of their songs (“Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” “Fernando,” “Mamma Mia” and, of course, “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”) to a movie again. It was only P.J. Hogan’s threat to fly to Stockholm to smoke them out that made the stars acquiesce.

So without Muriel, there would likely be no Abba as we know them today. There would perhaps be no Mamma Mia, no hologram concert or new album. There would be no Meryl in a jumpsuit. For God’s sake, there would be no Cher in a grey wig singing “Fernando”!!! Can you imagine such a world? Can you hear those drums? I sure as hell don’t want to.

Toni Colette in Muriel’s Wedding.

“You’re terrible, Muriel.” “You can’t stop progress.” “I’d rather swallow razor blades than have a drink with you.” “Deirdre Chambers, what a coincidence.” “I’m beautiful, I’M A BRIDE!!!” The dialogue from this movie is burned into my heart and I’ll happily quote it all to you if you’ll just “let me finish my orgasm”….

“PS – I am a fatso whale.”

OK, I’m finished.

Oh, I got out of Clydebank in the end. “Goodbye, Porpoise Spit!” (I wasn’t finished!) My grade predictions were wrong, so I got into uni and my life turned out great. It turned out better than “Dancing Queen.” I grew up and made a movie of my own, My Old School. It comes out this week. It’s about a thing that happened in my high-school class that summer of 1995. There’s a scene in it where the characters take a trip to the local multiplex to see a certain Australian movie. They laugh and joke in the theater, throwing popcorn around. At least, I think it’s popcorn. It better not be fucking Jelly Babies.

Featured image shows Rachel Griffiths and Toni Colette in Muriel’s Wedding.

Jono McLeod’s first feature film, My Old School starring Alan Cumming, is out now in theaters through Magnolia Pictures. Jono began his career as an onscreen reporter for Scottish TV news, before moving behind the camera at BBC Scotland. He’s since directed documentaries and factual programming for every major UK TV network. His debut short film, Being Stavros, was a hit with audiences at scores of major gay film festivals including Los Angeles Outfest, San Francisco Frameline, Toronto Inside Out and Moscow Side by Side.