I’ve always enjoyed ABBA—not in that post-hoc, so-bad-it’s 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! isn’t canned ABBA—the only way to enjoy those dumb-blonde lyrics—but ABBA covers, sort of.
Sure, it’s 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 it’s 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 men—each of whom might be her long-lost father—to 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 mother’s 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 he’d 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 movie’s 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 show’s voluminous gay following), Mamma Mia! is a (Shirley) valentine to fiftysomething, we’re-not-done-yet broads. The three fiftysomething British broads—director Phyllida Lloyd, screenwriter Catherine Johnson, and co-producer Judy Craymer—who 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 haven’t a clue, and though their screw-it-all ineptitude lends the movie a sporadically infectious gaiety, basically it’s 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 daughter’s 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.
It’s with moments like these—and the show-stoppingly sublime glam-rock performances by oldsters who know better but refuse to give in to their stiffening knees—that 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, we’ll see.