A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 115 mins.

Donna: Meryl Streep / Sophie: Amanda Seyfried / Sam: Pierce Brosnan / Bill: Stellan Skarsgard / Harry: Colin Firth / Tanya: Christine Baranski / Rosie: Julie Walters / Sky: Dominic Cooper

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd / Written by Catherine Johnson, based on the stage musical

There have not been too many Swedish pop culture phenoms…last I checked.  But ABBA was and is one…for sure. 

The Swedish pop music group - comprised of Benny Anerson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid Lyngstand, and Agnetha Faltskog - absolutely dominated the charts around the world in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  The essential key to their immense international popularity was the almost instantaneous catchiness of their tunes, which comprised of simple lyrics, a whimsical free spirit, and the way the group overdubbed the female singers voices to create multiple harmonies (at least that’s what wikipedia.com tells me).  Just how incredibly popular were they?  Well, ABBA sold a jaw-dropping 400 million records worldwide in countries as far ranging as the UK, Europe, North America, and Australia.  Even though they hit their stride between 1972 and 1982 in terms of popularity, their music still is adored by millions are ardent followers. 

Uh-huh, I am a child of ABBA.  I was young enough to remember listening to my parent’s original LP’s in their then crazily oversized turntable/stereo system (about the size of a large coffin, we are talking massive).  Both then and unquestionably now their music has always felt like sweet, tasty, and hard to pass up comfort food that goes down distinctively easy.  The music is really hard to dislike with its easygoing groove and appealing vibe.  I think that it’s of no surprise that their catalogue of greatest hits was made into a stage musical known as MAMMA MIA!, named after one of their more popular, chart topping hits.  Originally conceived as a stage musical with a book by British playwright Catherine Johnson, the first production saw the light of day in London in 1999 and by 2005 MAMMA MIA! surpassed original Broadway runs of such auspicious and widely cherished musicals like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE KING AND I, and DAWN YANKEES with 1500 performances.   To be fair, that is a mighty impressive achievment, to say the least. 

Big screen treatment obviously beckoned, which has culminated in this summer’s film adaptation, helmed by the original director of the first MAMMA MIA! Broadway play, Phyllida Lloyd. Like all great examples of what has been coined as the “jukebox musical”, MAMMA MIA! is completely infatuated with ABBA tunes.  It’s ABBA centric in much the same way that Julie Taymor’s ambitious, but flawed, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was a Beatles-only musical.  MAMMA MIA! is certainly not in the grand tradition of marvelous silver screen musicals (it frequently stumbles when it should prowl forward with confidence and jubilation), but there is no question that to die-hard fundamentalists ABBA-ites, seeing this film is absolutely required viewing as a pseudo-religious experience.  It is certainly one of those very rare musicals where the very songs themselves – and not the performers singing them – are the main attractions.  And in MAMMA MIA’s case…that’s just fine. 

To say that the plot for the film is the flimsiest of crutches and excuses for the songs to exist would both be an understatement…and maybe even a bit pompously redundant.  This is essential a “let’s worship at the altar of ABBA” concert film with big name stars.  The main bulk of the story is set on a Greek isle (in reality, the Greek island of Skopelos and the seaside hamlet of Damouchari in the Pelion area of Greece, and the luscious and naturally opulent scenery is categorically beautiful and immersive).  There is a tourist villa on the island run by Donna (Meryl Streep, proving here that she is capable of doing anything in a performance) that has raised her daughter there to the age of 20.  The daughter in question is named Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, an actress here of such a bubbly and intensely adorable charisma) and she has revealed that she is to be wed to Sky (Dominic Cooper, facilitating the bland male suitor with zero personality and rock hard abs quotient of this story).  

The sad part about Sophie's impending nuptials is that she never has found out who her real biological father was, which leads to a little mission on her part.  She has uncovered her mother’s diary that she wrote around the time of her pregnancy.  Based on her research - and a bit of reading between the lines - she has deduced that there can be only one of three possible men that could have been her father.  So, as a result, she engages in a fairly clandestine scheme to invite all three of them to her wedding, without revealing this to mommy dearest.  The three men are businessman Sam (Pierce Brosnan), banker Harry (Colin Firth), and Swedish adventurer Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and Sophie thinks that the best way to uncover which one is dear ol’ dad is to spend as much time with each of them as much as possible.  Of course – and rather predictably – this is made very difficult by the fact that her mother finds out about all three of them being invited, which causes Donna to relive some old relationship pains.  Things get even more complicated when word of Sophie’s plans get the attention of her fiancé, which he does not like in any way.  Needless to say, a lot of wacky and routine melodrama ensues that mechanically grinds down to a happily ever after third act…all punctuated, of course, with wall-to-wall ABBA jingles. 

Just how much of ABBA is here?  I think that I counted about 20 of their most memorable tunes.  Songs as far ranging from I Have A Dream, Honey, Honey, Money, Money, Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On  Me (one of my favs), SOS, and, yes, Mamma Mia are intertwined in the film’s conventional and humdrum narrative.  I guess that one of the first basics precepts that I adhere to in any film review is whether or not a film succeeds on its intended promises, and I guess that on the modest and unassuming level of being a loving homage and depot of the very best and most admired songs of the ABBA musical canon, then…well…mission accomplished.  This is simply the greatest ABBA musical ever made.

Yes…sarcasm implied. 

Okay, sarcasm aside, MAMMA MIA! is most definitely not casualty free.  The plot, as stated, is a smorgasbord of inane and perfunctory plot developments: The film is about as touching as it is silly, and there is never any single surprise in any development, right down to the final scene of the marriage itself….or…marriages…if you catch my drift.  Yet, this is a mild criticism compared to the film’s visual look.  The real life Greek island where principle photography took place, as stated, is completely stunning (the colors of the scenery and the fresh expansiveness of the sky makes this a place I want to visit for real).  Yet, for all of the film’s natural allure, the film’s direction of the song and dance numbers themselves is borderline comatose, flat, and stylistically stunted.  Yes, the songs are great, but the way Phyllida Lloyd patches together the individual sequences is ungainly, awkward, and nearly void of energy and spirit.  The choreography is also an utter mess (look at one would-be large scale musical number that involves the two young lovers singing Lay All Your Love On Me which is accompanied by a flock of men in swimwear dancing with scuba gear and flippers…and never once satisfyingly in synch).  Another sequence involving the title song is also another messy and rushed affair.  I loved what I heard in MAMMA MIA!, but I also, at times, got distracted by what I saw. 

Perhaps even more nerve-wracking is the usually cool, debonair, and effortlessly charming Pierce Brosnan, who has done brilliant work in the past playing likeable rogues with a fiercely goofy comic edge (see THE MATADOR, one of the more underrated films in years).  Brosnan can play leading men in his sleep, but here he sings in a teeth grating and painfully ineloquent manner.  His efforts at even modestly attempting ABBA classics show his reticence with the production on the whole (apparently, it has been said that he signed up for the film without fully realizing what it entailed).  Seeing his cringe-worthy and eye covering renditions of songs like SOS shows almost physical discomfort on his part, kind of like the strained vocals you may hear out of a person that belts out lyrics while constipated on the toilet, desperately awaiting a new bowel movement.  There can be no denying that ABBA’s tunes are an infectious delight in the film, but Brosnan’s stammering and clumsy attempts at singing pop songs is abysmal, and lethally mediocre. 

There are, alas, two distinctive rays of sunshine in MAMMA MIA!, and the first would Meryl Streep, a self-professed fan of the original musical, that is such an unhinged lightning rod of fancy free jolliness and boisterous sassiness in the film.  She is involved in many of the film’s crucial song numbers, but even when the choreography is sluggish and torrid, Streep’s unbridled passion for the material shines through in every scene she’s in.  Not only that, but she can really sing (just look at the way she infuses real emotion into The Winner Takes It All) and is remarkably dexterous for a woman her age, as shown in one shot of her performing a mid-air split…which is kind of incredible.  The other delight of MAMMA MIA! is the screen presence of relative newcomer Amanda Seyfried (who had a small role in ALPHA DOG and is also in HBO’s wonderful BIG LOVE), who carves out a terrific star making turn here as Streep’s meddlesome daughter.   Seyfried has those large and shimmering Barbie doll eyes and a pearly white radiant smile, the latter quality that reaches the adorable and luminous heights of an Elizabeth Banks.  When she’s on screen solo or opposite of Streep, she brings a limitless and boundless spunk and delightful liveliness.  Alongside the songs, the only other real reason to see MAMMA MIA! is for the dynamic and affable tandem of Seyfried and Streep.  The two of them go a long way...even when they have to carry the  vocally challenged Brosnan.

I missed MAMMA MIA! in its initial theatrical run, which may or may not have had something to do with THE DARK KNIGHT preoccupying one weekend.  I guess as a classic bit of counter programming, MAMMA MIA! – although not nearly capturing the box office heights of the Caped Crusader – became the most successful screen musical of all time (it grossed nearly $600 million worldwide and is currently the sixth highest grossing film of 2008).  MAMMA MIA! cannot be considered in the same breath with the great, landmark examples of the genre, not to mention that there is not one memorably choreographed song/dance number here to be had.  But…dang it…the film is fun and has a gee-whiz gumption and carefree earnestness.  On the most basic levels, the film wholeheartedly delivers, and I defy anyone not to tap their toes in unison to those delightfully trouble-free and undemanding ABBA melodies.  

Without a doubt, the Swedes have this musical market cornered.

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