“Maybe Michael couldn’t commit to this marriage, so he created a delusion… produced an unconscious, psychosomatic manifestation of… I’m better with food. Okay? You’re Michael. You’re in a fancy French restaurant. You order crème brûlée for dessert. It’s beautiful, it’s sweet, it’s irritatingly perfect. Suddenly, Michael realizes he doesn’t want crème brûlée. He wants something else…”
“What does he want?”
“Jell-O? Why does he want Jell-O?”
“Because he’s comfortable with Jell-O!”
In honor of wedding season, our hosts share their childhood visions of holy matrimony before revisiting two nuptial-themed films by Aussie auteur P.J. Hogan. First, we say “I do” to 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, a quirky drama that’s not nearly as terrible as Muriel herself, starring Toni Collette. Then, we attend My Best Friend’s Wedding, a unconventional rom-com that has our hosts thoroughly divided.
Is Rupert Everett’s scene-stealing George a dated stereotype, or a monumental achievement in queer representation in summer blockbusters? Is Julia Roberts playing a heinous sociopath, or… a lovably heinous sociopath? Most importantly: will Jell-O always be bested by crème brûlée?
Release Date: March 10, 1995
Budget: $9 million
Opening Weekend: $244,969
Domestic Total Gross: $15.1 million
Worldwide: $15.5 million
I missed Muriel’s Wedding when it came out, though I remember seeing trailers at the beginning of other VHS tapes and posters in my local video store. It always looked quirky and fun, though it was probably a tad too adult for me upon its initial release. Mostly, I remember Abba’s “Waterloo,” a song I was unfamiliar with but found insanely catchy. (I did not yet know about Abba’s dangerous earworms.)
Muriel’s Wedding feels absolutely Australian. It is a dramedy with a tone all its own, and only loosely follows a coherent narrative arc. Few romantic comedy heroines steal from family members as a major plot point. Few comic relief sidekicks get a tumor and lose the ability to walk over the course of the story. One can imagine a much broader version of this story, focusing more on Muriel’s engagement to a hunky South African swimmer. Muriel’s Wedding isn’t any of the movies a Hollywood screenwriter would have turned it into, and on some levels that’s frustrating, because there’s definitely more comedic potential to be mined from these situations. As great as Toni Collette’s performance is, I never truly got the sense that I really knew Muriel.
What I do appreciate about Muriel’s Wedding is the way it makes a young(ish) woman’s fetishization of weddings tragic, and then lets her overcome this tragedy. Like many single women her age, Muriel dreams of a perfect wedding to a perfect groom as the tonic that will cure her imperfect, aimless life. It’s her friendship with Rhonda (a delightful Rachel Griffiths) that most promisingly elevates her self-esteem and status in the world, but insecurity with being an independent woman threatens this friendship as Muriel pursues a sham marriage instead. What seems like a one-note joke at first, however, blossoms into a truly interesting romance (sort of), as David the hunky swimmer (Daniel Lapane) finds some genuine affection for Muriel, and she realizes this isn’t the kind of love she needs in her life after all.
Do I wish Muriel’s Wedding had taken more time to explore some of its deeper, darker themes? I do. For me, Muriel’s Wedding is really about three movies in one, and I only get a little bit of each of them. I want more about Muriel and Rhonda taking on the “mean girls” (a la Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion, I guess), and more between Muriel and David. (And maybe one more scene where Muriel’s sister tells she’s “terrible.”) That doesn’t really diminish my enjoyment of the film as it is, though on the whole, I find it somewhat less than satisfying.
Release Date: June 20, 1997
Budget: $38 million
Opening Weekend: $7.4 million
Domestic Total Gross: $127.1 million
Worldwide: $299.3 million
My Best Friend’s Wedding is probably my personal favorite romantic comedy of all time, and undoubtedly my favorite rom-com of the 90s. The 70s have Annie Hall, the 80s have When Harry Met Sally, and… okay, I know a lot of people would not rank My Best Friend’s Wedding up there with those titles. It’s definitely aiming for a different vibe. In one sense, it harkens back to the great screwball rom-coms of the 1930s and 40s, with a broad plot that works best when held at some distance from reality. In another, it maintains a fraction of the stubborn Australian shagginess P.J. Hogan delivered in full force in Muriel’s Wedding. Both films are about not-so-admirable women who invent fake weddings to further their own agendas, engaging in rather questionable behavior along the way.
What I love about My Best Friend’s Wedding is that it doesn’t do this as a quirky Aussie import, but in the guise of a big, splashy Hollywood rom-com starring Julia Roberts. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I love the way it snuck into movie theaters in 1997 and took moviegoers who’d gone to see Julia get the guy (again) by surprise. My Best Friend’s Wedding satisfies all the requirements of a romantic comedy while defying everything we’ve come to expect from one. The heroine does not get her man, nor does she find a suitable replacement. There’s no real silver lining for Jules in this film — a nice dance with George, sure, but we also believe it’s possible that she really did let the love of her life get away, and will perhaps never find anyone she loves more deeply. What other romantic comedy better informs the women (and men) in the audience that it’s okay to be alone? That “winning” the love of the girl or guy you want isn’t the most important thing? That, in the end, it’s better to do the right thing and be able to live with yourself than lie, cheat, and trick your way into romance?
I don’t want to rail against the entire genre, but there are plenty of fucked up messages validated by Hollywood romances. In my eyes, My Best Friend’s Wedding is the lone corrective to them all. In the 20 years since its release, I don’t think any other rom-com has been quite as daring, particularly not a big studio movie with a major leading lady. Ronald Bass’ script allows Jules to be near-sociopathic in her cruelty to Michael and Kimmy, but Roberts’ starry performance keeps us along for the ride. There’s a deep moral quandary that emerges about halfway through this movie, as it begins to dawn on the audience — we don’t actually want Jules to break Michael and Kimmy up, or to see her end up with this guy. We’re conditioned to think that it’s definitely going to happen, because what Julia Roberts rom-com would end with Julia Roberts alone? We root against the tropes of the entire romantic comedy genre, and it creates genuine suspense. Not only is “Will she get the guy?” a real question in this movie, which it isn’t in virtually every other romantic comedy ever made, but so is: “Do I even want her to?”
I don’t remember many other studio movies that have made me feel so torn between my loyalties to a protagonist and my own moral fiber, let alone romantic comedies. My Best Friend’s Wedding actively participates in the romantic comedy genre while stealthily deconstructing it from within, and you don’t know what it’s really up to until the end. This is my preferred mode of entertainment — which should surprise no one who knows my appreciation of Scream and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. My Best Friend’s Wedding is, in ways, the Scream of the romantic comedy genre, and ultimately takes a very favorable attitude toward women. So many screenwriters would position rich, blonde, beautiful Kimmy as a vapid bitch — but as played by Cameron Diaz, she’s neither. She’s depicted as naive and privileged, but we also see that there’s a real person underneath, and by the end of the film we wish her well. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, it’s okay to be either the traditional blushing bride or the spinster cynic. In most rom-coms, the endings are already prescribed. My Best Friend’s Wedding forces its characters to actually work for their respective endings, be they happy or bittersweet.
Of course, there’s one other factor that makes My Best Friend’s Wedding a landmark of 90s cinema, and that’s Rupert Everett as George. He wasn’t the first gay best friend to appear in a romantic comedy, and was far from the last — after My Best Friend’s Wedding, sassy gay sidekicks became the cliche, to the extent that gay people had to fight against being seen as mere window dressing in lesser films.
But George is the highlight of the movie, in addition to being the voice of reason. Instead of feeling like he exists merely to help Jules through her romantic foibles, George constantly seems like he’s putting his more refined, sophisticated life on pause, deigning to help his hapless girlfriend. Yes, George is the “magical gay” in the tradition of the problematic “magical Negro.” As far as we can tell, he’s flawless, and we get the sense that he’d fix everyone’s problems in five minutes if they all just listened to him. Everett’s performance is so lively, though, that I can’t help but see George as a fully developed, fully realized person whose backstory is perhaps as colorful as Everett’s own personal history. He’s definitely gay — he leads a Dionne Warwick sing-along! — but it’s still rare to see a gay male treated with this much respect in a studio endeavor. None of the comedy surrounding George comes at his expense or panders to cheap stereotypes. Nor does the character overcorrect for his sexuality by being overly hetero-acting. He has more charm and charisma than almost any other supporting character I can think of — it’s a shame he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for it.
As I describe in the podcast, George is also perhaps the first gay character I saw growing up who wasn’t somehow tragic. In the 80s and 90s, most depictions of gay characters I’d seen dealt with bullying, drugs, AIDS — or all of the above. My Best Friend’s Wedding doesn’t have time to deal with George’s actual sexuality, perhaps in part because it might have been polarizing to do so in this movie at that moment. But you know what? I actually greatly prefer that George seem asexual than to have some tossed-off crack about his promiscuity, which is what we usually get with George-like gay sidekicks.
Back in 1997, for me, George was merely a really fun character in a movie I liked quite a lot, but looking back I think it was probably helpful to see a confident, handsome, hilarious gay man (who did not have AIDS) on the big screen in a major studio’s summer blockbuster comedy. Rupert Everett became a legitimate sex symbol after playing George, the guy women knew was gay but still found sexy. That’s an important milestone on the way to Will & Grace, which is basically just a sitcom version of the Jules-and-George relationship, and where we are now, when a mostly hopeful, only-sort-of-tragic gay drama just won Best Picture. To the extent that gay characters appear in studio movies these days, it’s almost always as sidekicks, and none feel as fresh or vital as George in My Best Friend’s Wedding did in 1997.
I find My Best Friend’s Wedding so bold, original, and admirable in so many ways. It’s definitely a broad comedy that stretches plausibility in its plotting, but what rom-com isn’t? I think it’s wonderful that TriStar let Bass and Hogan let Jules be “pond scum” and conclude the movie dancing with a dashing gay dude, which on its own terms serves as a truly happy ending. I can’t think of any other major romantic comedy that took this kind of risk, before or since. Twenty years later, I find My Best Friend’s Wedding just as revolutionary as it was in 1997, which says a lot for P.J. and Ronald and Rupert and Julia and not a lot for the studio comedies made since.
Forever and ever it’ll stay in my heart.