Mamma Mia!

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/18/08 00:00:00

"Slipping Through Their Fingers"
1 stars (Sucks)

Before I go any further in discussing “Mama Mia!,” the big-screen adaptation of the unfathomably popular stage musical, I suppose that I should take a moment to offer up a couple of personal admissions in the interest of full disclosure. The first, and this will probably not come as that much of a surprise to anyone who has been reading my stuff for any amount of time, is the fact that for the most part, I have never really had much enthusiasm for the musical genre as a whole. Oh sure, there have been musicals in the past that I have loved--ranging from classics like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Gigi” to cult favorites like “Pennies From Heaven” and “Little Shop of Horrors” to such recent attempts as “High School Musical” and the great “Romance & Cigarettes”--but for the most part, it is a type of filmmaking that I have never really responded to in any significant way and one where I am less willing to overlook certain flaws as I might with something from a genre that I feel more of a kinship with. (While others looked at “Chicago” and saw a dazzling display of song and dance that overcame any possible hiccups, all I saw was a lumbering and leaden work that was crippled by the casting of a leading lady whose crooning and terpsichorean abilities were suspect at best and for its refusal to fully embrace itself as a full-out musical by staging nearly all of its productions numbers as ironic stage-bound fantasies in an effort to avoid alienating audiences who might not otherwise respond to the sight of people bursting into song and dance at the drop of a hat.)

Less well known, however, is the fact that I have a deep and long-abiding aversion to the work of ABBA, the Seventies-era Swedish pop mega-group whose best-known tunes were strung together to form the heart of the story of “Mama Mia!” Although part of this is because their brand of ultra-catchy pop ditties simply aren’t my cup of tea (and this is coming from someone who is cheerfully willing to admit that his iPod includes a couple of Katherine McPhee tunes), a lot of this is due to the fact that when I was growing up, they were my father’s favorite group. This might not sound that shocking until you understand that my father has always been the type of person who has never had any use for any musical innovation that came into being after 1948 with the sole exceptions of Sha-Na-Na and ABBA. Even worse, he liked to sing along with them as well and I guarantee, if you had the choice between listening to an especially scratchy copy of Lou Reed’s legendarily atonal “Metal Machine Music” or hearing my father chiming along with the likes of “Fernando,” I guarantee that you would go for the Lou Reed in a rock and roll heartbeat.

This is not to say that I could never respond to a film that was both a musical and a celebration of all things ABBA, though I will admit that such a beast would probably have a slightly harder time winning me over than, say, “Mother of Tears” or “The Dark Knight” did. However, as “Mama Mia!” went on and on and on, it dawned on me that my personal prejudices really didn’t have anything to do with my outright loathing for the film. Call me a brute and a heartless cynic but there are few things in the world that I find more personally off-putting in a film that the grisly spectacle of people going to enormous lengths to convince me that they are having a giddy good time in the hopes that I will become so overwhelmed by their example that I will immediately join in. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy a giddy good time every once in a while but when a film insists on reminding me at every turn just how frothy and silly and inconsequential and that I should be instantly charmed by it for those very reasons, I tend to react in much the same way that most people do to fingernails running down a chalkboard. While there are plenty of reasons to dislike “Mama Mia!,” what finally pushed me over the edge was the way that it spent nearly two hours trying to convince me that it was the most delightful thing around with the kind of subtlety and restraint normally found in the more infamous employees of Abu Ghraib and with pretty much the same results that their efforts achieved in the long run.

Set on a remote Greek island that seems to be populated only our central characters and a few extras who always seem to be around in order to mug for the camera whenever the whimsy needs to be underlined, the film starts off by introducing us to Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a young and beautiful lass who has been raised on the island by her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), who had her out of wedlock after a summer of passion twenty years earlier and gave up dreams of musical stardom to raise her while running a dilapidated hotel that appears to be the only business on the island. Now Sophie is about to get married and her greatest dream is to have her father walk her down the aisle. After coming across Donna’s diary from that time, Sophie discovers that her mom was a bit of a strumpet at the time and that there are three men who could conceivably be her father. With Jerry Springer too far away to do any good, Sophie does the next best thing--she surreptitiously mails each one an invite to the wedding in Donna’s name on the assumption that a.) each one will immediately drop everything and come for the wedding and b.) that she will somehow instantly be able to recognize which one is her dad the minute that she lays eyes on him. Amazingly, the three of them--wild raconteur Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), conservative banker Harry (Colin Firth) and handsome Sam (Pierce Brosnan)--all show up and just as amazingly, Sophie is unable to figure out which one is which. For her part, Donna is mortified to see the reappearance of the three men from her past and does everything that she can to avoid them--it can’t possibly be because she still harbors certain feelings for at least one of them, can it? I wouldn’t dream of revealing how it all turns out--suffice it to say, the proceedings involve several cases of mistaken identity, a couple of fights and reconciliations and one of those only-in-a-movie wedding climaxes where all manner of shocking secrets are revealed and where nothing goes as planned.

Look, I know that one shouldn’t look for great narrative depth in a musical, especially one involving the ABBA discography, but even I was a little stunned to discover that the plot of “Mama Mia!” was this scanty. Good Lord, even the old beach party movies that Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello did back in the Sixties usually had slightly more ambitious storylines than this one. At the very least, they would at least have a subplot or two to make things seem a little more substantial. Oh sure, the film trucks a few auxiliary players--such as Donna’s two best friends, the man-hungry Tanya (Christine Baranski) and the world-weary cynic Rosie (Julie Walters), Sophie’s two best friends (Rachel McDowall and Ashley Lilley), a couple of hunky islanders and, last but certainly least, Sky (Dominic Cooper), who is Sophie’s fiancée and who is pretty much shunted off to the sidelines for the duration except for when it comes time for him to have an argument with his beloved for reasons that now elude me--and you just sort of assume that some of them will play some kind of important part in the proceedings Unfortunately, none of these characters wind up having much of anything to do except to stand on the sidelines and fill out the backgrounds without ever distracting from the main story. This might have been a nice gesture if the main story characters were at all compelling and interesting but the bubble-headed premise adapted here by screenwriter Catherine Johnson is so thin and non-nourishing that most people will find themselves praying for the relief of a B-story that is not coming to the rescue anytime soon.

As for the characters, they are so utterly banal and one-dimensional that they make the people in “Xanadu” seem fully fleshed out by comparison. Each one has been given a single character trait for the actors to play--Donna is headstrong, Sophie is spunky, Tanya is bawdy, Rosie is cynical, Sam is roguish, Bill is brash, and Harry is clearly hiding a secret that comes as a surprise to no one on the screen or in the audience--and the actors, with nothing else to work with, pound those single notes over and over until you want to beg them to stop. This is bad enough but what makes it worse is that none of the actors seem particularly comfortable or well-cast in their roles. The worst offender of the bunch, in terms of wild miscasting, has to be Meryl Streep as Donna. Apparently we in the audience are supposed to be utterly charmed and bemused by the sight of the oh-so-serious Streep up on the screen doing comedy and singing to boot. At one time, this might have been a revelation of some sort but Streep has previously shown a flair for comedy in such hilarious films as “Postcards from the Edge” and “Defending Your Life”--the difference, of course, is that those films were intelligently-written comedies in which she was allowed to play smart characters while “Mama Mia!” is more on the level of an old “I Love Lucy” episode that isn’t one of that show’s enshrined classics. Hell, you even got to see Streep sing in “Postcards from the Edge” and “A Prairie Home Companion” to boot, where she demonstrated a nicely understated singing voice that is a million times removed from the glorified karaoke that she is required to deliver here. (There is also the unavoidable fact that Streep is perhaps 20 years too old for the role of Donna and the film’s attempts to make her look younger only serve to underline her real age.) In the case of Pierce Brosnan, he isn’t necessarily a bad casting choice for the role of Sam but is undone by the fact that he simply cannot sing at all--even Lee Marvin‘s infamously atonal rendition of “I was Born Under a Wandrin‘ Star“ from “Paint Your Wagon“ winds up coming across as almost tolerable when compared to what Brosnan does to the likes of “SOS” and “When All Is Said and Done.”

At this point, many confirmed “Mama Mia!” fanatics are probably gnashing their teeth in disgust at me for sitting around and talking about plot and character instead of what is clearly the driving force behind the show--the big musical numbers based on all those classic ABBA tunes. Well, the reason I have been avoided mentioning them so far is because on virtually every artistic level that such moments fall under, they are resolutely terrible. For starters, there is the unavoidable fact that the songs that have been chosen were all individual works that were never designed to tell one single story. Of course, some of the great movie musicals of all time--I will toss out “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Pennies from Heaven” and “Romance & Cigarettes” as three examples--have had scores that were comprised entirely of previously existing songs but in those cases, the tunes were carefully chosen works that actually did help to underline the stories that they were telling despite the fact that they weren’t written specifically for them. In the case of “Mama Mia!,” it feels more like a case of trying to cram as many songs into a two-hour framework as humanly possible in the hopes that by doing so, no one will notice how absolutely threadbare the rest of the story really is. Again, this kind of deliberate musical overkill isn’t necessarily a bad idea (it certainly worked for “Moulin Rouge”) but it fails here because of how poorly the numbers have been staged and executed here. None of the musical sequences have any pop or visual flair to them--they just lumber across the screen with such an astonishing degree of gracelessness that it almost makes the dully choreographed numbers from the screen version of “The Producers” look like high-class spectacle by comparison.

My guess is that since none of her stars had much singing or dancing experience, director Phyllida Lloyd, who put on the show in its original stage version and who makes her screen directorial debut here, decided to go for the kind of loose and deliberately ramshackle staging that Robert Altman utilized when he made his wildly underrated musical “Popeye.” Again, not a bad idea and one which, if done properly, can go a long way towards helping viewers connect with the characters on a more personal and emotional level, but the results here merely look incompetent than heartfelt and the various visual tricks that Lloyd occasionally throws in as a further distraction (such as some genuinely grisly slo-mo effects during the big “Dancing Queen” number) are so ugly to behold that all you want to do is turn away from them. Then again, it is clear right from the start that whatever Lloyd’s talents on the stage may be, she is simply not a visual stylist--she even manages the seemingly impossible task of making the theoretically picturesque Greek island where some of the exteriors were shot look so crappy and uninviting that the entire film could have been shot on a shabby back lot without much difference.

And yet, with all of these considerable problems, the worst thing about “Mama Mia!” is the way that it keeps trying to insist upon us that it is indeed the lightest and frothiest bit of fun around and that we should simply embrace it for its complete lack of substance. Granted, this is a trait found in most musicals--that most giddy and heedless of genres--but rarely with the kind of hard-sell prodding found here. Take a film like last year’s “Hairspray,” for example.” It was every bit as silly and fluffy as this film but because it didn’t rub our noses in it in nearly every frame, viewers were allowed to relax a little bit and let the good times roll. By comparison, “Mama Mia!” is so determined to impose its brand of terminal whimsy upon us that even the most light-hearted of viewers may find themselves recoiling in annoyance. From watching the film, I guess I can sort of understand why the show has struck a chord with so many people in its stage incarnation--the more direct connection between those on stage and those in the audience presumably leads to the kind of party atmosphere that could be infectious under the right circumstances. Right from the start, it becomes clear that the film has similar intentions but that kind of direct connection is difficult to achieve in a film and as it goes on and on and on, the gulf between the two parties grows wider and more daunting. The whole thing kind of feels like a bad night at the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” where none of the on-stage performers are really into it and everyone is trying too hard to have “fun”--not because they are really feeling it but because they know that they should be feeling it and they want to have the same experience that they have heard about from others, no matter how hollow it may actually be.

There has been a minor slew of movie musicals in the last few years and while I haven’t really been a fan of most of them, especially the stage adaptations hoping to duplicate the box-office and award success of “Chicago,” I am willing to concede that most of them have had a few compensating factors. “The Phantom of the Opera” had the lovely singing voice of Emmy Rossum and a funny supporting turn from Minnie Driver as the uber-diva. “Rent” had the fiery presence of Rosario Dawson. “The Producers” had the still-funny premise of the original movie and a great performance from Uma Thurman. Hell, even an all-out disaster like “Across the Universe” at least had a certain wild ambition driving it along--it at least tried to give viewers something new and different, even though it failed miserably at it. Ever since I have seen “Mama Mia!,” I have been wracking my brains trying to think up some similarly positive points and after all this time, I have only managed to come up with three. 1.) The ingénue at the heart of the story is as cute as a button. 2.) At 110 minutes, it is approximately a half-hour shorter than “Sex and the City.” 3.) No one in the film sings “Fernando.” These are all compensations, I suppose, but on the other hand, I could say those exact same things about “Wanted” and at least in that film, the choreography was better.

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