By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

In the ’50s, young women-or, as they were called then, girls-devoted a lot of time to two activities: holding on to their virginity and landing a husband. (One didn’t necessarily lead to the other, but the prevailing wisdom was that it sure helped.) Of course, we’re past all that now. Or are we? In a climate where the erotic temperature has been cooled by a variety of forces, including the new puritanism of both the left and the right, a notion as musty as a young woman’s saving herself for marriage-or viewing marriage as her savior-may be developing a new cachet. At least, that’s the conclusion one might draw from MURIEL’S WEDDING (Miramax, R) and CIRCLE OF FRIENDS (Savoy, PG-13). In tone, these two coming-of-age movies couldn’t be more different (one’s a raucous Australian comedy, the other a sweet-spirited Irish drama), yet they share a wide-eyed infatuation with the girl myths of a bygone age. The first thing you notice about the heroine of Muriel’s Wedding is that she’s as far from a glamour-puss as contemporary movies have to offer. Big, gawky, and freckled-pale, with a broad, toothy grin that’s so eager to please it’s a little scary, Muriel (Toni Collette), a secretarial-school refugee, is an earnest misfit caught up in daydreams as overripe as the rest of her life is empty. Her two favorite pastimes are staring longingly into the windows of bridal shops and sitting alone in her room listening to ABBA-in particular, that delectable ice cream swirl of a princess fantasy, ”Dancing Queen.” Dumped by her blond bitch-goddess ”friends,” who’ve decided she isn’t cool enough to hang out with them, Muriel escapes from her cartoon-dysfunctional family and lands in Sydney, where we wait for her to discover what we already know: that she won’t really be living until she drops her chintzy, schoolgirl notions of love. And what, pray, does Muriel do in Sydney? Why, she contines to stare into bridal-shop windows and listen to ABBA. Virtually every scene of Muriel’s Wedding cues us to chuckle at the superficiality of its heroine’s dreams. Yet despite the game attempts of newcomer Toni Collette to display some acerbic personality, there’s nothing to Muriel but her false dreams: We never quite glimpse the woman they’re hiding. Writer-director P.J. Hogan has made an ugly-duckling comedy that manages to be entirely synthetic and, at the same time, to celebrate its own plasticity. It’s one thing, after all, when a knowing cheesefest like The Brady Bunch Movie pushes self-conscious mockery. But in a comedy of romantic yearning, the reckless assertion of camp attitude grows tiresome and smug. By the end, even the ABBA songs, in their candified splendor, seem a form of cop-out, a way of inviting people in the audience to congratulate themselves on their retro- kitsch savvy. After the fashionable flipness of Muriel’s Wedding, the wee, conservative charms of Circle of Friends can’t help but seem a relief. As Benny, a small- town Irish teenager in the ’50s who goes off to university in Dublin, Minnie Driver has a touchingly awkward prettiness. Her jaw may be as square as a picture frame, but her smile lights her up from within. In Dublin, Benny and her two comrades, all of them virgins, attend school dances, meet a variety of suitors, and lose their innocence with a swooning trepidation that almost makes one nostalgic for a more repressed era. As the gentle, blue-eyed jock who woos Benny, Chris O’Donnell is the kind of doting dreamboat every girl should be lucky enough to have as a first boyfriend. Then, egged on by Benny’s best friend (Saffron Burrows), he engages in an act of betrayal-a good thing, too, since by the picture’s second half the winsome likability of the characters has grown a bit cloying. Circle of Friends isn’t without its jokey edge. The other boy who competes for Benny’s affections is her father’s slimy clothing-store apprentice, played by Alan Cumming in a performance that suggests Pee-wee Herman starring in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I didn’t believe in this character for a moment, but it’s obvious why the filmmakers included him: They were worried-with good reason- that their wistful tribute to love in the ’50s might end up a little too tame. Muriel’s Wedding: C- Circle of Friends: B-