Like a prisoner who eventually starts to hum along to the Metallica song his captors have been pounding into his head for days, Mamma Mia! nearly broke down my defenses. There are SO many things wrong with this big-screen adaptation of the hit play that it's hard to know where to begin, but the in-your-face, over-the-top style, the one that doesn't ask you to have fun but slaps you in the face and demands it, has a way of getting under your skin. Miscast, poorly shot, possibly choreographed by a spastic eight-year-old, Mamma Mia! is a mess, but it's kind of an impressive mess. It's the Ugliest Dog competition of musicals - not exactly a traditional winner but not that hard to root for and something that many people will fall in love with before the credits mercifully roll.
The team behind Mamma Mia! have made several awful decisions, but it's the two ones they got right that go the furthest in redeeming this cluttered mess - casting Amanda Seyfried and Meryl Streep. Seyfried actually steals the show as Sophie, a 20-year-old who has never known her father. Her loving mother Donna (Streep) had a wild summer twenty years ago, and Sophie's pa could either be Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), or Bill (Stellan Skarsgard). In the days leading up to her wedding, Sophie decides to invite all three potential daddies to the Greek isle where the festivities will be taking place at the same time. What follows is awkward physical comedy, a lot of arrhythmic dancing, and people spontaneously breaking into the songs of ABBA, not necessarily in that order.
The stage version of Mamma Mia! was never exactly a masterpiece (and, yes, believe it or not, I've seen it on stage) but it did have a sort of group sing-a-long charm. "Who cares about the stupid plot? They're singing 'Dancing Queen'!!" But film requires a different set of parameters like competent cinematography, reasonable editing, and choreography that stands up to the close-up, unforgiving nature of the camera. In all these areas, Mamma Mia! is almost laughably bad. It's as if the team's motto was "Fun! Fun! Fun!," and they knew that a community theatre-style approach to the specifics was not only all it would take, but also might actually enhance the film’s shaggy dog quality. It might be giving the rookie filmmakers too much credit, but I think certain elements of Mamma Mia! may be bad on purpose, knowing that such flaws might make it more loveable. How else can you explain the fact that no one stopped to wonder why Pierce Brosnan was cast when he can't sing a note? (Musically, it's the worst performance in the history of the genre. Yes, including Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon. And Firth and Skarsgard don't fare significantly better. All three roles should definitely have been played by unknowns that could actually sing.) How else can you explain the spastic, near-epileptic choreography of the first few big musical numbers, where the actors were apparently instructed that, if they waved their arms fast enough, the audience might think they're actually doing something? How else can you explain the choppy editing that does none of the actors any favors and sometimes make the activity itself hard to follow? It has to be this cheesily bad on purpose, right? Just like ABBA.
My hatred for anything non-Seyfried in the first half of Mamma Mia! was pretty distinct, but then something remarkable started to happen. Like a drinker getting halfway through a bottle of Ouzo, a serious buzz starts to kick in and critical faculties get hazy. Christine Baranski, as one of Donna's old friends, has a great number on a beach and then the chaotic fun actually takes a step back and allows for two serious numbers - "Slipping Through My Fingers" and "The Winner Takes It All" - and Streep simply rocks them both. She can literally do anything and sells the two serious songs with enough gusto to make you believe. And, more importantly, to nearly make you forget the flaws of the film that came before. Suddenly, I found myself enjoying “Take a Chance on Me” (sung with gusto by the great Julie Walters), and the seemingly endless cavalcade of numbers that make up the finale. By the end, when the whole cast is wearing '70s spandex and belting out "Dancing Queen," it's hard not to go along with the tune and laugh away the flaws of the film. Should and could Mamma Mia! have been better? Undeniably. But, thanks largely to the great Seyfried and "the greatest" Streep, the film does a remarkable job of breaking down the critical side that would even ask that question in the first place. Just have fun - whether you like it or not.
Rating: TWO BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: July 18th, 2008
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Julie Walters, and Christine Baranski
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Writers: Catherine Johnson