I can't believe I didn't hate this movie. Mamma Mia! is everything I normally despise: it's loud, broad, and incessantly in-your-face. Watching it is not unlike watching a pack of Chihuahuas who have just overdosed on caffeine. Aside from the fact that I've always had a soft spot for ABBA (whose songs are featured throughout), there is little earthly reason for me to have enjoyed this film. And yet, I did. Was I just feeling generous today? Doubtful - that's not really how I roll. Was it a much-needed antidote coming at the tail end of a few stressful weeks? That's likely part of it. Or did the movie tap into some deep-seated desire on my part to stand up in front of a room full of strangers and belt out "Waterloo?" Um…no.
We'll figure all that out in a moment. Right now, we need to talk about the story, which takes place on an idyllic Greek island where young Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) lives with her mother Donna (Meryl Streep). Donna runs a local hotel, and 20 years earlier, she had flings with three separate men, one of whom is Sophie's father. Unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie invites all three of them - Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) - to her pending wedding in hopes of finally discovering which one sired her. One wonders why she doesn't also try to figure out why her mother was such a slut, but perhaps that's another movie.
Also visiting the island are Donna's two best friends, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters); together, the three of them engage in a lot of obnoxious, borderline-slapstick goofing around that constituted my least favorite part of the movie. Needless to say, romantic complications ensue as it becomes obvious that at least one of the men still harbors romantic feelings for Donna. Thankfully, there are lots of ABBA songs to sing, which helps everyone figure everything out.
Mamma Mia! is not on the same level as some of the other musicals we've seen on screen recently. I think the problem is that director Phyllida Lloyd orchestrated the stage version but has never helmed a motion picture before. She stages the movie like a play that has just happened to be filmed. Directors such as Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and Adam Shankman (Hairspray) have a much greater knowledge of film techniques, and they did a vastly superior job of using techniques to make their musicals feel less stage-y and more cinematic. Lloyd's direction and storytelling, in contrast, are often quite slapdash. You can almost feel her trying to think of ways to fill up four minutes during the production numbers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the alleged showstopper, in which Streep sings "The Winner Takes It All." Perched along a seaside cliff, the actress waves her arms dramatically, as though no one bothered to give her any choreography and she's trying to avoid just standing there. The non-musical sections are similarly disjointed. The plot advances because it has to, not because it comes about organically.
Of course, this begs the question: Why the hell am I recommending this movie? I am reminded of a skit Adam Sandler and Chris Farley once did on "Saturday Night Live." They wanted to prove that you could make people laugh simply through the uninhibited expression of energy. To illustrate this, they began jumping around the stage, screaming and whooping at full force, until the audience cracked up. Mamma Mia! essentially does the same thing. It shoots energy at you relentlessly until you finally agree to give in. Or walk out in frustration.
The actors are clearly having a ball performing the ABBA songs (and let's face it - they're still pretty irresistible). Somehow, even in the midst of all the stuff that doesn't quite work, the cast members infuse Mamma Mia! with enough energy to somehow pull it off. Look at the scene in which Christine Baranski belts out "Does Your Mama Know" in a scene where she's dancing on the beach and seducing a young man. It's a ludicrous scene and - like many in the film - an awkward way to force a song in. Nevertheless, Baranski performs the scene with such a knowing wink that I was disarmed.
I ended up kind of embracing the things that were bad. (Well, except for Pierce Brosnan's singing, which is pretty embarrassing.) After about 15 minutes, it occurred to me that the filmmakers have intentionally cast actors who are not necessarily great singers or graceful dancers. The overall effect is that you're seeing ordinary people bursting into song and dance. It's awkward, it's clumsy…it's just like if you and I did it! Perhaps this will drive some people insane, but I kind of got into the style after a while. The low-rent approach is slightly different than anything we've seen in other big screen musicals. Imagine a feature-length version of the musical numbers in the similarly ABBA-loving Muriel's Wedding and you'll get the gist.
I also liked the cast. Meryl Streep has never seemed to be having so much fun as she does here. Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgard also clearly relish the chance to do something they haven't done before. But the one who steals the show is Amanda Seyfried. She's been on my radar for a while now. In movies like Mean Girls and Alpha Dog, she has been relegated to secondary roles, yet has always shown the kind of spark that suggests a star in the making. This is undoubtedly a breakthrough performance, as she brings charm, sweetness, and charisma to the role of Sophie, giving the picture a much-needed emotional center.
Although I always try to offer a sound, logical explanation for why I like or dislike a particular movie, I've always been the kind of critic who reviews movies more from the heart than from the head. In other words, if I'm having a good time, I will acknowledge it rather than try to talk myself out of it based on some idea of what I should or shouldn't like. Mamma Mia! is a case in point. I won't say it's a good movie or try to defend it against its naysayers. The picture is flawed, in some ways seriously. But the fact remains that I tapped my foot, I smiled, and I found myself undeniably amused. If that's the kind of experience you're looking for - and if you dig ABBA - this crazy, sloppy, mixed-up movie might just be for you.
( out of four)
Mamma Mia! is rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Mamma Mia!
Return to The Aisle Seat