Director : Phyllida Lloyd
Screenplay : Catherine Johnson
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Meryl Streep (Donna), Amanda Seyfried (Sophie), Pierce Brosnan (Sam Carmichael), Stellan Skarsgard (Bill), Colin Firth (Harry Bright), Christine Baranski (Tanya), Julie Walters (Rosie), Dominic Cooper (Sky)
There’s just no getting around the fact that ABBA’s music is infectious. The best of the buoyant pop ditties produced by the Swedish quartet in the 1970s and early 1980s are lush, catchy, and instantly memorable, even for those who profess to despise them. Despite many of their songs being about heartbreak and sadness, rarely has a pop group created a sound so consistently upbeat and joyful, which is most likely why there have been so many reports of audiences dancing in the aisles during Mamma Mia!, the nearly decade-old Broadway musical based on ABBA music that has now been turned into a movie by Phyllida Lloyd, a well-regarded theater director making a shaky cinematic debut.
Unfortunately, much like The Producers (2005), which was also helmed by a theater-trying-to-turn-film director, Mamma Mia! is a cinematic dud that is so haphazardly produced and coarse around the edges that it feels more like a rough cut than a finished product (transitions between scenes feel particularly abrupt, which makes the film feel lumpy when it should be flowing). The infectious nature of ABBA’s music, however good or badly it may be rendered on-screen by actors not usually known for their musical chops, is almost enough to disguise just how lousy the movie really is, from its paper-thin storyline to its bland characterizations to its awkward choreography that continually insists that goofy energy and wild abandon are enough (they’re not). There’s a reason for that exclamation point at the end of the title: Mamma Mia! is determined that it’s a rollicking good time, whether you’re on board or not.
One of the main problems is the story, which is cobbled together with a string of ABBA’s greatest hits (“Mamma Mia,” “Dancing Queen,” “Money, Money, Money,” “S.O.S.,” to name a few). Much like Across the Universe (2007), which attempted to do the same thing with the Beatles’ catalog and failed almost as badly, the story in Mamma Mia! is ultimately so boring and facetious that it turns every moment between musical numbers into a dry slog (plus it doesn’t have the benefit of Julie Taymor’s psychedelic viscera to keep your eyes occupied). At times the ABBA songs feel relatively organic, as if they were written with the narrative in mind, but more often than not they feel awkwardly shoehorned in, with the lyrics barely relating to the storyline and, even more disastrously, the tone being completely off. At least Taymor and company had the good sense to reimagine some Beatles songs to fit their story (such as turning “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” into a sad anthem of unrequited love); screenwriter Catherine Johnson, who also penned the stage production, is too afraid to take significant liberties with the tunes, which makes many of the musical numbers feel like karaoke renditions with no thematic or narrative depth.
For what it’s worth, the story concerns 20-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is about to get married and has secretly invited the three men she suspects might be her father (Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth), none of whom she has ever met. This does not sit particularly well with her free-spirited mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), who hasn’t seen any of these men in two decades and is quite shocked to find them all at the small hotel she runs on a remote Greek island where the festivities are to take place. And, that’s about it. There is some intended comic relief courtesy of Donna’s two best friends played by Christine Baranski and Julie Waters and some unintended comic relief every time the movie tries to generate anything even remotely resembling drama.
Director Phyllida Lloyd, a veteran of the British stage who originally helmed Mamma Mia! back in 1999, clearly has little notion of how to stage a musical on screen, and as a result even the most exuberant musical numbers feel either flat or forced. The talent in front of the camera is an odd mixture, with Meryl Streep proving that she has a beautiful voice, even as her performance slides overboard in trying to convince us of her inner struggle between being a responsible single parent and a wild spirit, while Pierce Brosnan looking generally uncomfortable doing anything other than standing around and looking handsome. Amanda Seyfried makes for an amiable protagonist with a bright, clear voice, but the only time a scene really works is when Christine Baranski takes “Does Your Mother Know” and gender-reveres it into a showpiece for vibrant middle-age female sexuality. She is the only person on screen who seems to own even a single moment of this slapdash attempt to cash in on a runaway Broadway success.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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