Muriel Heslop (Toni Collette) is an ugly duckling first glimpsed catching the bouquet at a friend’s wedding. This event is quickly followed by Muriel being forced to give up the bouquet, the bridegroom having sex with a bridesmaid and Muriel being arrested for shoplifting.
“You’re terrible, Muriel,” comes the envy-tinged statement from her sister, Joanie (Gabby Millgate).
In further quick succession, Muriel’s father Bill (Bill Hunter) bribes the police, the bride and her bridesmaids take off for a resort without the new husband, Bill stitches up a dodgy land deal with Japanese businessmen, Muriel steals money from her mother and follows the other girls to the local resort of Hibiscus Island where she runs into an old acquaintance, Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), and together they win a talent contest doing a routine mimicking Muriel’s beloved ABBA.
Muriel runs away to Sydney, Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer, and Bill is arrested on corruption charges.
While nursing her wheelchair-bound friend, Muriel (now calling herself ‘Mariel’) answers an advertisement from a handsome South African athlete (Daniel Lapaine), who wants to marry in order to gain citizenship. With the prospect of becoming famous as Mrs David Van Arkle and escaping Muriel Heslop forever, it seems Mariel’s dreams have come true.
Mariel finally marries. Her father forgives her. Her friends from Porpoise Spit return to be her bridesmaids. Only Rhonda and Muriel’s mother, who arrives late and is unnoticed, do not join in the celebrations.
But before she can taste the fruits of married life, Mariel is forced back to reality with the death of her mother.
The pace and the turn of events, many of them delightfully comic, are breathtaking, and the plot twists and turns relentlessly.
At the end of the film, Muriel and Rhonda shout goodbye to their home – the coastal resort town of Porpoise Spit – as they leave forever in a taxi. The two Cinderellas are leaving the ball.
David Van Arkle