A film review by Craig J. Koban
MAMMA MIA! THE MOVIE
2008, PG-13, 115 mins.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.