Friday, August 29, 2008

Mamma Mia! / * (PG-13)

Donna Sheridan: Meryl Streep
Rosie: Julie Walters
Tanya: Christine Baranski
Sam Carmichael: Pierce Brosnan
Harry Bright: Colin Firth
Bill Anderson: Stellan Skarsgård
Sophie Sheridan: Amanda Seyfried
Sky: Dominic Cooper

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Screenplay and musical book by Catherine Johnson. Running time: 108 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sex-related comments).

Up until my junior year in college 70’s Swedish disco rockers ABBA were merely a blip on my pop music radar. They were a popular band when I was seven, and I might have tried to capture a song or two on my first feeble attempts at producing a mix tape. Then in college, a classmate wrote a one-man show for me. It was about a U.S. Postal worker who is visited by the ghost of German opera composer Richard Wagner. The letter sorter is a huge ABBA fan and his relationship with the dead German comes to a head when the deceased composer ends up scratching one of his ABBA records. The experience of performing the show cemented a place in my heart for the music of ABBA. “Mamma Mia!” has threatened to destroy all that play did for me.

“Mamma Mia!” is a mess of a musical that has been made into a mess of a movie. As a musical it’s patchwork at best, a sad excuse to string together some popular songs that were never intended to tell a story anything like the one presented. And as a film it is a sloppy soup of clichés that aren’t even presented in a way that makes them clear and understandable. The casting is questionable and the direction and script fail to utilize some of the actors’ strengths. The direction also suffers from the common movie musical problem of wavering between staginess and the intimacy that film allows. It gets the tone right, but the execution is all wrong.

The story alone is pretty weak to begin with, amounting to little more than a dramatic excuse to string together a bunch of songs about love that span from ideal love (“Lay All Your Love On Me”) to estranged and betrayed love (“The Winner Takes It All”). It involves a single mother, Donna, and her daughter, Sophie. Donna runs an open-air hotel on an isolated Greek island. Sophie is engaged to marry Sky, but yearns to know whom her father is. After discovering a diary of her mother’s, she narrows the possible paternal candidates down to three and invites all three to her wedding. When Harry, Sam and Bill show up to Donna’s surprise, she must find comfort with her two best friends, Rosie and Tanya.

Director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Catherine Johnson—both carrying over their work from the Broadway musical production—make the mistake of starting the story with Sophie and the potential fathers rather than with the story’s central relationship between Donna and Sophie. Not having seen the musical, I don’t know if the film’s opening sequence is a deviation from the original material; but it feels like a cheap attempt to draw the audience into the action.

Watching the three men rush to make a boat to this remote island while Sophie sings “Honey, Honey” seems like a cinematic way to open the material up to a larger location palate. The rest of the movie seems strangely stuck in one central location. We have no idea why it’s so important for Sophie to connect with her father now or why these former lovers of Donna would want to attend the wedding. We have no sense of who these people are or what they mean to each other. And these have to be the stupidest men in the world not to suspect just why Sophie has invited them all. How old is Sophie? And how long has it been since they’ve seen Donna? Mightn’t they ask how each other knows Donna?

Instead of giving us an introduction to mother and daughter together so we can get to know who they are and what they mean to each other, we are given three men whom we never really get to know, while Donna plays with her two best friends—clearly successful independent women who only seem to know how to act like school girls together. Meryl Streep (“Lions for Lambs”), as Donna, and Christine Baranski (“The Birdcage”) and Julie Walters (“Billy Elliot”), as Tanya and Rosie, do a good job infusing their performances with manic energy, bringing great character to their musical sequences. Unfortunately, they have to fight against a script that provides little in terms of dramatic transition from scene to scene. Some of the musical numbers seem inserted from storylines that are barely—if ever—introduced. Baranski’s performance of “Does Your Mother Know” is one of the film’s best numbers but has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

The men are either miscast or poorly used. Stellan Skarsgård (“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”) is the most comfortable in his role as the free-spirited Bill. He doesn’t seem to have much function in the story beyond being a possible father, and Rosie’s interest in him—like all of the story’s relationships—comes out of nowhere. Likewise, Colin Firth (“Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason”) serves little purpose as Harry beyond providing another notch on the paternal roulette wheel. He provides a surprise development late in the story that is all the more surprising since the moment where his secret is revealed will be missed if you blink.

Pierce Brosnan (“The Matador”) seems to have been chosen to add an element of seriousness to the men’s relationship with Donna, but he is terribly miscast. Not only does he come across as far too serious for the fairly goofy atmosphere surrounding him, but he is called upon to provide dramatic singing moments as well and his voice just isn’t up to the task.

As for the young lovers, Amanda Seyfried (HBO’s “Big Love”) and Dominic Cooper (“The History Boys”) provide the nubile good looks that make their performances interchangeable with just about any well-tanned young actors with the ability to sing.

I’m sure there will be many people who will claim I missed the fun of this movie. I saw the movie with some middle-aged women who cackled throughout the entire screening. Perhaps there is some element of motherhood and aging female friendship that I cannot relate to. Certainly the songs of ABBA are fun and seeing them used in comedic and dramatic fashion to tell a story should create enjoyable entertainment. But I couldn’t help thinking as I watched these characters who resembled props for the songs more than actual people, why is this the story and setting for these songs? The songs of ABBA can be used to tell any number of tales. Why not use them to tell something interesting and coherent? It doesn’t have to be about love and relationships; it just needs to be fun. Heck, these wonderfully spunky songs can even be used to tell a ghost story about a postal worker visited by a dead German opera composer.


Nicole said...

Before I went to NYC someone else went and told me to go see Mamma Mia and I couldn't get tickets to it. When I saw the movie preview it looked like a bad movie... thanks for taking away any doubt I had on that!

Andrew D. Wells said...

This weekend in select cities Universal is releasing a sing-along version of the movie with subtitles of the song lyrics, ala follow the bouncing ball I suppose. This, I think, is the basis of the Broadway production's success. People love to sing along with the ABBA songs. This is a practice I very much agree with. But it doesn't excuse such a bold example of sloppy stage and film craft. If you want to sing some ABBA songs, buy ABBA Gold and turn up your stereo system at home. Save yourself some money and some pain.

Anonymous said...

Nicole....ignore Mr Wells and listen to your friend.

The stage musical and now the film have had audiences of many tens of millions around the globe come away very happy. Far more than will ever know about this film critic...even if he finds it clever to sneer instead of review.

The craft of stage and screen is aimed at one thing...the audience's enjoyment,not some artificial broadway snobbery.