This is not a good summer for alpha male moviegoers. Just when they’ve recovered from being dragged by wives and girlfriends to Sex and the City, here comes Mamma Mia!, looking to grab a slice of the boffo box office pie generated by that previous chick flick.
Director Phyllida Lloyd has taken the international theatrical success and amped it into a splashy movie musical that practically busts a gut in its frenetic desire to win audiences. It’s breathlessly paced with propulsive, catchily inane song after song by ABBA, nary a breath in between for performer or viewer.
What’s striking is how seamlessly these random tunes fit into the framework of the screenplay by Catherine Johnson. Mamma Mia! spins the simple tale of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) who, on the eve of her wedding in Greece, sends an invitation to three men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard), one of whom she suspects is her father, much to the consternation of her once free-spirited, now-harried innkeeper mother, Donna (Meryl Streep). The musical numbers have been competently and energetically choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, but the cinematography is too dark—although the crystalline Mediterranean water still manages to emerge as the film’s true star. At times, during certain star closeups, one positively yearns for the bad old days of Doris Day gauze-and-grease on the lens.
The cast fully matches Lloyd’s direction for antic rambunctiousness. Streep, who demonstrated in The Manchurian Candidate and The Devil Wears Prada that she can tone it down enough to be subtle and powerful in unsympathetic roles, is back to her hammy tricks as the likable Donna. She acts more like a teenager than Sophie, jumping up and down like Betty Hutton on speed to convey an unquenchable youthful vitality. Her voice, serviceable enough in the theatre in Brecht pieces like Mother Courage, is quavery and thin, despite, one suspects, a thorough fine tuning in the sound department. (If only a somewhat younger Streisand had been available to sell these universally beloved tunes.)
A large part of the film’s appeal depends on whether or not you succumb to Streep’s strenuous performance—I’m sure many will – but there’s no denying the element of risibility when she emotes the lyric “I don’t wanna talk” (from “The Winner Takes It All”) with Shakespearean sententiousness to a bemused, ever-wooden Pierce Brosnan (whose stoic singing efforts are even more hilarious).
Seyfried is the real find here: fresh and ardent as well as angelically pretty. Dominic Cooper (stud muffin of The History Boys) as Sophie’s fiancé doesn’t photograph magically, but Lloyd has included an array of muscled hunks who exhibit themselves in a sexy number featuring Christine Baranski. (I would have preferred seeing more of them and less of the cutesy Greek chorus of villagers Lloyd monotonously employs.) Baranski plays a randy friend of Donna’s, but isn’t given any good lines to show off her distinctive timing. Julie Walters plays another gal pal, and seems to relish being as gnomish as possible. Firth, with his hesitant charm, manages to be the most appealing of the maybe-Dads, but Skarsgard is largely wasted—a shame, as more emphasis should have been placed on the guys and less on those brassy cougars, if only to fully utilize his innately human warmth and power.
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