Middle-aged ABBA musical not quite as cringetastic as those words imply
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgrd
This isn’t the first time the music of ABBA has served as the musical crux in a film about a wedding. 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding used the title character’s obsession with the '70s Swedish quartet’s glittery lady-music to underscore Muriel’s disconnected idealization of romance, glamour and marriage-centered happiness, an obsession that leaves her struggling to construct a true sense of self. Mamma Mia!, on the other hand, features ABBA as a way to ... sing along to ABBA songs. And dance.
Mamma Mia! centers on the impending wedding of 20-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) on the small Greek island where her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) owns a charmingly deteriorating inn. Independent Donna has raised her daughter alone, and despite questioning Sophie’s decision to marry so young, Donna invites her best friends and former backup singers (they were in a band in the ’70s), played vampishly by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, to share in the nuptials.
Of course, this is Mamma’s movie, so the wedding is simply a device to get the drama moving and create a context where singing ABBA songs makes sense and yet isn’t a gay club. Turns out Sophie has no idea who her father is until she stumbles upon her mother’s old diary, identifies three possible suspects and then, as logic would dictate, invites them to her wedding in order to find out which one is her dad. Which is, to be fair, significantly less awkward than meeting on “The Maury Show.”
The film moves along a standard “no one knows what everyone else knows, resulting in comic confusion” trajectory, but that’s unimportant. This movie is in no way owned by the writer, but by the actors. The most surprising casting decision comes in Streep as Donna, the Mamma. Meryl Streep, who won two Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice; so, not known for her cuddly mom roles.
Still, it should come as no surprise that Streep is delightful. Earthy and vibrant, she’s a goofy, immature, loving, conflicted mess who has real chemistry with Seyfried. She knows how to command the screen, and though she’s most often doing so while engaging in a doomed love affair with a French lieutenant/deer hunter or giving a child to the Nazis, she gives each measure and jazz-handed spin her all.
In fact, the entire cast is remarkable, if not perfect. Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård play the trio of potential baby daddies, and while they too are known more for their non-comedic, iconic roles (James Bond, Mr. Darcy and the intense guy from Breaking the Waves, respectively), they throw themselves into their parts with humility and agility. Brosnan, though, plays Donna’s true love, Sam Carmichael, with a bit too much determination, attacking the role like it was a dirty Russkie spy. Firth fares better with the best singing voice of the three, as well as the best body, the best smile, the smartest brain, etc. Skarsgård and Walters, in tertiary roles, provide some of the film’s highlights.
Despite the cast’s noble efforts, what keeps this film from fulfilling its potential as cheesy, fabulous fun is not the fact that it’s set to ABBA, but rather, the production of those ABBA numbers. First-time film director Phyllida Lloyd (who helmed the Broadway production) fails to reinvision the work, and the movie suffers from claustrophobia. Though set in a Greek paradise, many of Mamma Mia!’s numbers are staged in small rooms, ignoring the liberating possibilities of translating stage to film. In fact, there are no showstoppers, no big numbers that allow the audience to be caught up in “having the time of their lives.” Much of the literal interpretations of the songs’ lyrics, while fun onstage, fall flat on screen. ABBA’s music is inherently campy and dramatic, but rather than embrace the sheer ridiculousness of the conceit, the production stifles it by forcing the numbers into a series of realistic exchanges, preventing the audience from suspending its disbelief. Did I mention the frequent use of slow motion?
Still, Mamma Mia! is, as your mom might say, “a real kick.” Now, about your mom. She is likely part of this film’s target audience: people who remember the '70s and are attracted to men. And, as such, there are some moments that portray women in their 50s as sexual creatures with parts. As a woman who hopes to someday be 50, this is wonderful. As someone with a mom in her 50s, ew. Recommend it to her, but make other plans yourself.