I can't say that I was all too enthusiastic about watching Mamma Mia!, the massive box office hit that is finding its way onto DVD this week. Despite starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgaard, Julie Waters and Big Love's Amanda Seyfried, the thought of subjecting myself to two hours of hokey ABBA songs was all but unbearable.
Alas, it is not my job to not watch movies, so I shoved the blistering DVD into my player and away we went. ABBA songs ensued. A basic plot about a girl and her three potential fathers was sprinkled in between. The result: mild entertainment.
Mamma Mia! is about a hot girl named Sophie (Seyfried, who seems to look better every year) who is getting married at the small, Italian coastal village where she's been raised. However, she's never known her dad, but she does know that her mom (Meryl Streep), frankly, liked to slut it around town a bit. Without her mother's knowing, she invites three men she suspects to be her father to the wedding - without telling them her true intentions. When they arrive, Sophie must figure out which one of them is her dad and hide them from her mom, who isn't exactly pleased by their arrival.
I've never seen the play, nor do I really want to, but Mamma Mia! exceeded expectations in that it wasn't as cringe-inducing as I expected. Ultimately, it's entertaining enough, with a few moderately funny dance sequences and a fast-paced script. The ABBA songs aren't nearly as bad as one would expect, and the movie embraces their cheesiness with zest and a little Italian dressing. Director Phyllida Lloyd never takes things too seriously, thankfully.
Still, Mamma Mia! isn't great, though some of this may have more to do with the play than the execution of the movie. The story has enough complexity that it could be truly engaging, but despite all of the tiny white lies that occur, there never seems to be much true conflict. Yes, Sophie must hide the three men from her ex-boyfriend and at the same time keep them on the island, but it all seems so bland at times. The story either needed to be more complex or more meaty in other departments, and it just doesn't deliver.
Mamma Mia! does evoke a few laughs from a few of its dance numbers, but for the most part it is unimaginative and plain. Compared to last year's Hairspray, another goofy musical that I thought I'd hate but ended up enjoyed, Lloyd doesn't embrace the music and involve the audience in the numbers. An ABBA song starts, the actors start singing, some basic choreography ensues, and that's it; there is never anything too elaborate about these sequences, and for a modern musical comedy, that just doesn't fly. The one memorable moment I recall is where a bunch of guys are doing leg kicks on a dock - that was pretty funny.
In between the songs, the movie isn't particularly funny. Without comedy, the flick needed to rely on its romance, and the chemistry seems lacking or completely underdeveloped. We never get to know Sophie's fiance, and while this might be okay for a play, the man's lack of development in the film is noticeable. Why should we care that she's getting married to a guy we don't know? Much worse is the awkward romance between the poorly cast Pierce Brosnan, who can't sing one beat, and Meryl Streep, which feels like it's there for the sake of story, but not for the audience.
Complaints aside, fans of musical comedies might not be so harsh on Mamma Mia! However, with so many good musicals coming out in recent years, starting with Moulin Rouge and ending with Hairspray, this one is a few more rungs down the ladder.
Review by Robert Bell (B)
As a straightforward and guileless adaptation of the hit musical, Mamma Mia! mostly succeeds, despite the fact that it is essentially two-hours of celebrity ABBA karaoke with only a little vocal talent. Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid's layered harmonies and catchy hooks lend themselves well to the popular musical format, adding some accessibility to a less euphoniously discerning crowd than perhaps a Sondheim musical might, with its angular harmonies and polyphony. Understandably, this aggressively fluffy pop music is juxtaposed with an equally exuberant and almost psychotically optimistic plot about following one's heart and knowing that love is love regardless of DNA and external genitalia.
With her impending nuptials, 20-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Bill's oldest, anti-polygamist daughter on Big Love) is desperate to find her real father, whose identity has been kept hidden by her mother Donna (Meryl Streep). After uncovering her mother's diary, Sophie quickly finds out the reason that her mother has been so secretive about her patriarchal roots. It seems that back in the day, Donna got pelvic with three different men in a very short period of time, which means that the father could be Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), or Harry (Colin Firth).
In an effort to solve the mystery, Sophie invites all three men to her wedding, much to the surprise of her mother, and her mother's lifelong girlfriends (Julie Walters & Christine Baranski).
As surely as cynics will scoff at unrealistic character reactions, occasionally crappy singing and frequently sloppy transitions between songs, ABBA loving optimists will be tapping their toes along to each musical number and delighting in the sheer, undeniable whimsy and spirit. Director Phillida Lloyd has opted for an edited, musical montage approach rather than the choreographed soundstage approach of other recent musicals like Enchanted and Hairspray. The result is decent, engaging and occasionally beautiful, even if there are occasional moments similar to early 90's music-video's where ingénue's wear overly emotional expressions on their faces while singing at the camera.
The biggest question that a lot of people will invariably ask about Mamma Mia! is if the actors can sing. The answer is both yes and no. Amanda Seyfried is impressive all around, proving herself as a bankable star, which is especially significant considering that she is standing next to the multi-talented Meryl Streep, who herself can sing quite well. On the other hand, Pierce Brosnan sounds like a dying goat whenever he opens his mouth and Stellan Skarsgard sings a bit like a kid who licks glass and eats three lunches a day.
Quite simply, Mamma Mia! is a reasonably well made - if somewhat touristy and compact - film that will please fans of the genre and annoy those who dislike pop and/or musicals; plus, Meryl Streep plays air guitar and dresses up in a glittery jumpsuit.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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