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Achorus of groans erupts as Muriel Heslop catches the bouquet. “Throw it again!” the bride’s mother snaps.

So begins Muriel’s Wedding, first-time writer/director P.J. Hogan’s thoroughly likable coming-of-age-a-little-late tale. The film chronicles the tribulations of hopelessly out-of-step Muriel (Toni Collette, who gained 42 pounds for the role), an unemployed ABBA fan who lives at home with her parents in Porpoise Spit, Australia. Muriel and her siblings have made a lifestyle of living up to their father’s low expectations. Her dad (“You’re useless!”) and her peers (“You never wear the right clothes, you’re fat…and you listen to ’70s music!”) supply a steady barrage of negative criticism, but Muriel finds sustenance in listening to “Dancing Queen” over and over and indulging in elaborate fantasies about the escape offered by marriage.

Of course, it’s not marriage that will save Muriel. Her own parents—cheating, bullying Bill (Bill Hunter) and passive, compliant Betty (Jeane Drynan)—make that clear enough. As do Muriel’s peers: “I’m a bride…I’m supposed to be euphoric!” squeals a friend whose honeymoon coincides with the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Muriel may not need a groom, but she does need a friend, and she finds one in Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), a sharp-tongued former high-school classmate who she runs into when she follows the Porpoise Spit clique, uninvited, on an island vacation. The empowering aspect of friendship is among Wedding‘s central themes, and despite the brush with melodrama that comes toward its end, the film makes this simple point with a minimum of sentimentality.

Wedding exercises restraint on a number of fronts. If ever a movie seemed destined to contain a makeover scene, this is it. Thankfully, Muriel’s consciousness-raising is evinced by her behavior rather than her fashion sense (it should be noted that Wedding swept the Australian Academy Awards, winning, in addition to Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards for Collette and Griffiths). The filmmakers clearly relished dressing Muriel in exactly the wrong thing in the wrong shade and the wrong size at all times.

Muriel’s everyday appearance neatly underscores the transformation that occurs when she tries on wedding gowns—a pastime she practices in secret. (Director Hogan says that he got the idea for the film while having coffee at a café opposite a bridal shop—wouldn’t it be tempting, he wondered, especially for an emotionally needy person, to pose as a bride in order to bask in the “princess for a day” treatment they’re accorded?) Wedding is refreshing in more ways than one: It’s not often that a film defies the Hollywood truism that ugly people don’t fall in love.

Though she spends her days as a video store clerk watching and rewatching Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s nuptials, matrimonial fantasy is not Muriel’s only mode of escapism. Her sky-blue eye shadow and leopard-print frocks find their musical counterpart in the irredeemably unhip music of ABBA. Wedding‘s depiction of the narcotic capacity of pop music is extremely astute. And fittingly, when Muriel’s fortunes begin to improve, she’s able to leave her addiction behind. “Now my life’s as good as an ABBA song,” she explains to Rhonda in a burst of emotionalism that’s not half as funny as it sounds.

Were it not for its timely subject matter, Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak would be an utterly conventional thriller. In the film’s press kit, Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) says that he hopes the film will become “the Jaws of the ’90s.” It may well do so—it’s certainly no more substantive.

Here, though, the predator is “one-billionth our size.” Scripted by Lawrence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool, Outbreak borrows liberally from recent best sellers like Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. In the film, a deadly “hot” virus that originated in African monkeys is loosed on a small, Northern California town. Army virologist Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his ex-wife, Robby Keough (Renee Russo), now working at a rival health organization, are both enlisted to help identify the unknown virus.

As the search becomes increasingly urgent—the town is encircled by tanks and barbed wire as sick and dying residents overflow the hospital and fill a nearby baseball field—predictable plot developments ensue. Sam realizes that the Army had prior knowledge of the virus, which it has secretly cultivated as a biological weapon since the ’60s (a development that echoes speculation about the AIDS virus), and that his superiors would rather make a “clean sweep” of the entire town than admit their complicity in the coverup. (Needless to say, the role of the evil general who spouts euphemisms about “casualties of war” falls to Donald Sutherland.) Meanwhile, an incongruous subplot—and a good deal of ineffectual comic relief involving custody of the couple’s cute St. Bernards—revolves around Sam and Robby’s probable reconciliation.

Outbreak is a respectable exercise in suspense, but it should be much more. Its subject material is rich in cinematic possibilities, and the few scenes in which they are exploited demonstrate how effective the movie could have been. The genealogy of disease is, after all, inherently fascinating. At one point, an infected man sneezes in a movie theater and audiences are treated to the spectacle of a shower of germs that fly into the mouths of other patrons; at another, a germ’s- eye journey through a hospital’s ventilation system illustrates the realization that the virus is airborne. But moments like these are too infrequent. In the end, the filmmakers opt for old-style gambits: For the latter third of the film, death-inducing airborne viruses are upstaged by death-defying airborne helicopters.