Mamma Mia! Drains the Fun Out of ABBA
I've always enjoyed ABBAnot in that post-hoc, so-bad-its good hip way, but innocently, the way I like Phil Spector. To this day, howling along in my car to that echoing, cascading, multiply overdubbed wall of sound makes me feel like a member of some dippy but joyous cathedral choir. So I was crushed to learn that the score for Mamma Mia! isnt canned ABBAthe only way to enjoy those dumb-blonde lyricsbut ABBA covers, sort of.
Sure, its nice that the actors sing their own numbers and all that we already know from Postcards From the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion that Meryl Streep has a fab set of pipes, and the fact that Pierce Brosnan sings like a bullfrog in heat is used in the movie to adorable effect. But without all the in-studio bells and whistles, the tunes go flat and the words beyond silly, and the only time the music gets its due is when its paired with big production numbers, in those rare moments when Mamma Mia! decides to be itself: a flashy, appealingly vulgar, tirelessly nostalgic pub crawl through a narrow street in 1970s pop history, when flower power turned to glitter rock.
Mostly, though, Mamma Mia! is a collection of droopy ditties draped around a threadbare plot about the daughter of a single-mother hippie who secretly invites three meneach of whom might be her long-lost fatherto her Greek island wedding. Threes are the name of the relentlessly symmetrical game here: Sophie, the daughter (wide-eyed, pearly-toothed, vacantly smiling Amanda Seyfried), is joined by two similarly dewy OMG-ing BFFs who serve as bridesmaids and help her rummage through her mothers 20-year-old diary for clues to her paternity. From various glamorous global locales come the candidates, three middle-aged men in a boat: Brosnan as Sam the businessman; Colin Firth, doing his usual endearing stiff as a pent-up banker; and Stellan Skarsgard, looking as though hed rather be anywhere but here, as a writer with unavailable written all over him. All three are conveniently unattached, which means nothing, nudge-nudge, to the self-sufficient female trio (Streep, with Julie Walters and Christine Baranski for backup) who play out the movies themes of regret, courage, and generation gap.
For all its half-hearted stabs at catering to the transatlantic youth market (with a little gift tucked in for the stage shows voluminous gay following), Mamma Mia! is a (Shirley) valentine to fiftysomething, were-not-done-yet broads. The three fiftysomething British broadsdirector Phyllida Lloyd, screenwriter Catherine Johnson, and co-producer Judy Craymerwho so successfully courted that wildly under-served demographic in the smash-hit stage version of Mamma Mia! came on board the movie with no prior film experience. They havent a clue, and though their screw-it-all ineptitude lends the movie a sporadically infectious gaiety, basically its a mess.
Like many theater types on their first outing in movies, Lloyd gets anxiously busy with a hyperactive camera, shooting from above, below, and upside-down, and scooting endlessly over the sparkling blue Aegean like a travelogue parody gone wild. Worst of all, she keeps homing in on Streep, who over-emotes with growing desperation as she tries to pull off serious character acting and a vaudeville turn at the same time. For all her girlish simpers and acrobatic splits, the actress in Streep inevitably triumphs. Though she has some touchingly wistful moments as a hippie mom trying to grasp her daughters reactive desire for stability and a fancy wedding, as a performer Streep is completely eclipsed by Baranski. With the legs of Cyd Charisse and the arch wit of a sitcom sidekick, Baranski steals the show in a coyly filthy dance number with a corps de ballet of pectorally gifted young blades, who show up elsewhere doing a hilarious routine with frogman flippers.
Its with moments like theseand the show-stoppingly sublime glam-rock performances by oldsters who know better but refuse to give in to their stiffening kneesthat Mamma Mia! comes into its own and frankly takes ownership of what it is: a stage musical that made a big ol heap of money, shamelessly shoved onto the big screen to make a whole lot more. Given that the movie has no tale worth the telling, well see.
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