P.J. Hogan's MURIEL'S WEDDING, one of the surprise hits of early 1995, harks back to the recent US success of other Australian films with its satirical, delightfully campy style. Toni Collette stars as Muriel Heslop, a young ABBA fan who sets out to make a life for herself by leaving her

hometown, family and friends.

Muriel is a plump and unhappy woman who dreams of escaping to a new and better life through marriage. She's also a fanatical follower of the Swedish pop band ABBA, whose songs are featured prominently on the soundtrack. She's dumped by friends who look down on her and ridiculed by her father (Bill

Hunter) for being useless. When her parents give her a blank check to get her started in business, she seizes the opportunity to reinvent herself, emptying the family bank account and leaving provincial Porpoise Spit. She surprises her vacationing ex-friends by showing up at the same resort

they're staying at, but winds up making a new friend in Rhonda (Rachel Griffith). She moves to Sydney, finds a job, changes her name, and embarks on new adventures.

Secretly Muriel feeds her obsession by going to wedding boutiques to fit dresses and by keeping a private photo album of herself in different dresses. Through the personal ads, she meets and marries a wealthy young white South African (David Lapaine) who is trying to secure Australian citizenship

so that he can swim in the Olympics. Muriel is thrilled at her wedding, despite the groom's obvious apprehension.

Muriel cannot sustain her dreams. Rhonda is confined to a wheelchair after sudden surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in her back; Muriel's father leaves her mother (Jeanie Drynan) for another woman (Gennie Nevinson) and loses his job; and her mother kills herself with sleeping pills soon after

the wedding. Muriel decides she cannot continue to lie. She resumes her true first name, gives up on her marriage, and asks Rhonda, who moves back to Porpoise Spit to live with her mother, to return to Sydney with her.

Like the Australian hits STRICTLY BALLROOM (1993) and THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994), MURIEL'S WEDDING projects a cheeky, benevolent satirical spirit, celebrating the dreams of losers and outcasts. The film relies heavily on Toni Collette, who supplies the necessary screen

charisma. Her Muriel is emotionally flamboyant, by turns mopish and highly excitable.

Ultimately, the comedy here is grounded in self-hatred, hostility, and despair. Nearly everyone who wanders through this brash and deliberately tasteless film is stupid, ungainly, or grotesquely tragic. But this only heightens the pleasure during moments of delirious merriment, as when Muriel

lip-synchs an ABBA song at a karaoke contest, resplendent and unashamed in a tight-fitting white satin jumpsuit. (Profanity, sexual situations.)