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Mamma Mia!

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/21/08 21:17:45

"I Don't, I Don't, I Don't, I Don't, I Don't."
1 stars (Sucks)

The problem with a musical based entirely around the music of ABBA is that the music of ABBA isn’t very good.

In fact, the whole trend of creating stage musicals based on the catalogues of famous songwriters is suspect. Sure, producers are guaranteed an instant hit from minimal effort - no songs to write, a built-in audience of fans - but consider, if for only a moment, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Not the album, but the movie. Oh my, the movie. Released in 1978, the film watched Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and an array of 1970s stars warble their way through a fantasy plot built around the songs of the Beatles; the results were about as terrible as you might imagine. (Later, Julie Taymor would have only slightly more success with “Across the Universe.”) And if you can’t make a halfway decent musical using the Lennon/McCartney songbook, what chances do the borrowers of Andersson/Ulvaeus have?

It’s not just the co-opting of ABBA’s mediocre Euro-bubble-glam-pop that makes “Mamma Mia!” - both the stage musical and now the awful movie adaptation - terrible. The true misery comes from the laziness on display. Caroline Johnson, who penned both the musical’s book and the movie’s screenplay, sleepwalks through the task of creating an interesting story to tie these wildly diverse songs together. These songs, in this order, should advance the characters and their emotions, yet Johnson stumbles at every opportunity. Sometimes, it works, almost: “Slipping Through My Fingers” plays as the mother laments a daughter’s coming of age; “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” becomes the refrain for wedding vows; “Take a Chance on Me” is the playful banter between two in search of love.

But these are the exceptions. Watch how the script contorts itself so the heroine can sing “Money, Money, Money,” a song about wanting a rich lover; the character doing the singing is a self-admitted independent with no want of a man, and she kinda turns the song into a wish for money to help fix up her rundown hotel. (Although she doesn’t need money for these repairs. She needs a drill, and in the next scene, we see she owns one.) “Mamma Mia” ignores the lyrics about the guy being a cheating creep and sticks with the peppy chorus as a character considers reuniting with an old flame or three. “Dancing Queen” is twisted into an attempt to cheer up a character, but really, it’s just an excuse to stop everything and sing “Dancing Queen.” And if all else fails, just ignore the plot and have everyone sing “Voulez-Vous,” because if the audience is tapping their toes, they might not care about things like lyrics or logic.

(The movie, like the stage production, also includes a couple of non-story musical numbers at the end: our heroines deliver a sing-along reprise of “Dancing Queen,” then the whole cast comes out for “Waterloo,” which apparently nobody could figure out how to force into the damn story, so just shove it on at the end or something. This show choir epilogue is a great summation of the musical’s goals - let’s all sing along to the songs of our youth! - and I wonder if at one point the producers ever wanted to drop the whole story-and-characters thing and just do a big ABBA revue. After all, there’s more effort put into the musical cutaways than the actual story, like the plot is one big bother, and can’t we all just clown around in disco outfits instead?)

Underneath the limp song-to-plot connections lies a bigger problem: with or without the music, the story just plain stinks. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is an American raised in Greece (because when you think ABBA, you think Mediterranean!) by her single mom, Donna (Meryl Streep); the two live on a lush, remote island, where Donna runs the local hotel. Tomorrow is Sophie’s wedding, and in addition to all the girl friends that show up to party (among them Christine Baranski and Julie Waters, the latter mysteriously dolled up to look just like Joe Pesci), she’s invited three of Donna’s ex-lovers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård) to the ceremony in hopes of figuring out which one is her father. You see, twenty years back (which is either 1967 or 1982, depending on which flashback you trust), Donna was the village bicycle, and now Sophie wants to know which guy is the real father, something Donna doesn’t even know for certain. In other words: it’s “My Two Dads” set to crappy Swedish music.

Actually, Johnson freely admits to lifting the premise wholesale from the 1968 Gina Lollobridgida comedy “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” although only just so; “Mamma Mia!” is so thinly told that its premise could also act as its complete plot summary. Johnson’s script mixes elements of farce, mistaken identity, and light romantic comedy into a massive stew of cheap laughs and uninspired romance. Oh, and lots and lots of flimsy dialogue that grates the ears.

But the only real key element is that of Forced Fun: nearly every scene shows someone screaming with glee, or dancing with glee, or trying to get someone else to scream or dance with glee. There’s a lot of shrieking in this movie, the sort of shrill delight made by girls who want everyone in a ten block radius to know they’re having a good time. And if they’re having a good time, then so should you, dammit. The movie’s mantra is Shut Up, Drink Your Margarita, And Sing Along At The Top Of Your Lungs To “Super Trouper.” (Indeed, watching “Mamma Mia!” is like watching your mom and her friends get drunk and listen to old records.)

There is a crowd for such an experience. The screening I attended featured an entire row of women attempting to get the theater clapping and dancing along, and while I would hate to run into these same women during happy hour at TGI Friday’s (Appletinis and disco are not my bag, baby), I admire their ability to ignore lousy writing and inadequate storytelling just because “Lay All Your Love on Me” is blaring on the soundtrack.

All of these flaws are inherent in the source material itself, and Johnson is eager to repeat these mistakes on screen. Director Phyllida Lloyd, meanwhile, is a stage director who doesn’t understand the difference between playing to an audience and playing to the camera. She asks all her actors to overact as if the back row needs to hear them, apparently unaware that on a movie screen, this style of performance is deadly. Despite the rich locales, each scene is shot rather flatly, with not even lively choreography helping - a song-and-dance on the beach, with all its telegraphed cheese and boring camera work, comes off like a deleted scene from “From Justin to Kelly.” There’s no visual zip.

In attempting to beef up the musical with star power, Lloyd makes grave casting errors. Neither Brosnan nor Skarsgård can carry a tune (at my screening, there was much snickering every time Brosnan sang - even the fans were giggling), while all of the younger cast members, perhaps lost under the shuffle of marquee names, are never memorable, except perhaps Seyfried’s obnoxiously ham-heavy performance. And even when the cast does work (Streep sings wonderfully, and the men manage to squeeze out some charm now and then), they lack any chemistry. Who cares which guy Donna lands, if there are no sparks anywhere?

Really, though, the main fault lies with the source material itself. Changes made from stage to screen are too superficial to matter (a song cut here, added there), and while Lloyd’s direction is bland, it’s hard to imagine how a better filmmaker could have fared better. After all, if a cast led by Meryl Streep can’t wring magic from this mess, who could?

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