I wanted to love Mama Mia! — wanted to love it so badly. After all, it’s about some of my favorite subjects: women, romantic love, the sun-kissed beauty of Greece (a passion of mine since the guilty pleasures of Summer Lovers) and lively, highly melodic pop music (I’m a sucker for melody), notably the infectious, galvanizing pop of Swedish supergroup ABBA. And that’s not even to mention a cast which looked dreamy on paper.
But the finished film, alas, is filled with ABBA-dabba-do-nots, from actors who can’t sing (take Pierce Brosnan — please) to actors whose heaps of ham are more obnoxious than entertaining (take Julie Walters — please) to the most insipid choreography ever (take the prancing, arms-locked, oafish guys in flippers — please), all of which can’t help but undercut, rather than buoy, one of the world’s thinnest and most contrived plots.
As in the stage show, which I enjoyed once in Las Vegas, that plot concerns a girl approaching her wedding day on the Greek island where she lives with her mother, but obsessing instead over a lifelong question: Who’s my daddy? Via a discovered diary, she’s learned that her mother had three lovers in quick succession, any one of whom could be Dad, so she writes in her mother’s name to invite all three to her wedding. Why they’d want to attend the wedding of a girl they don’t know and to whom they’re not related, as they believe, no one can say. But naturally, all travel around the world to come, yet not one of them places a phone call ahead, and it’s a big, awkward surprise. Comic complications and romantic entanglements ensue.
Chronologically, the story worked better years ago on stage. Now, while seemingly set in the present, it references flashbacks of 20 years ago which seem better suited to the late ’60s or the ’70s. And if I see one more finger-pointing move passed off as “choreography,” then — now wait a minute. I’m carping. Let’s look on the bright side.
Meryl Streep is perhaps our best living film actress, and she does her best to breathe life into the titular free-spirited mama. Also, as in Prairie Home Companion, she sings well enough as a show-biz trouper, this one a veteran of a garish girl group of long ago.
But even such a great actress can’t overcome this film’s bumpy bits, including having windblown hair invading her mouth while she’s trying to sing her big song, The Winner Takes It All, as poor Brosnan fumbles for something to do other than clasp his hands behind his back. Oops, there I go again — carping.
Happily, Amanda Seyfried, as her daughter, is a real movie musicals find. In a show devoted to middle-aged love (nothing wrong with that), she’s just what it also needs: a young, beautiful, charming girl who can really sing. Each of her numbers is a winner, including the deleted song The Name of the Game and the music video for Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! She also endears in other extra features, showing a quirky spontaneity — and even vulgarity — that offsets the fantasy-world purity of her Mama Mia! character.
Speaking of DVD extras, skip the plodding deleted scenes (Name of the Game is shown separately, anyway) but do catch the outtakes, the many making-of segments and a lingering look at a cameo by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus.
Back to the film, Christine Baranski also excels, feeling far more suited to an aging girl-group veteran and life-devourer than Streep or Walters, while Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard have tender moments as the suddenly fatherly men, though obsessing over long-lost but found children is the most cliched male role of any TV soap opera. And Dominic Cooper has a certain Simon LeBon charm as Amanda’s neglected fiance, while the co-stars’ reported off-screen romance gave a spark to their on-screen chemistry.
The movie on Disc 1 also comes with a commentary by director Phillida Lloyd, but I can’t say I’m interested. Directing on stage (which she did) and on film (which she’s done once — this time) are far different animals, and Lloyd was clearly in over her head. This film’s problems in tone and technical details (even the blocking gets botched) are her responsibility, and she just wasn’t up to it. While Mama Mia! merited a female director — it’s a chick flick supreme — Lloyd was no solution but a large part of the problem.
Now, there I go again — carping. You want Shakespeare, some may say, then try Hamlet. Well, no, I don’t want Shakespeare out of this, but I did want a lighter and more sure touch by the director, the choreographer and the actors, and for the most part we didn’t get it. What we got, instead, is a frothy, scenic lark which never truly catches fire, even with such great songs blazing.
I wanted to love Mama Mia! — to really, really love it (to paraphrase Sally Field). But at best — I liked it. Of course, there are worse things you can say about a movie. And as mixed bags go, this one’s still a keeper.
Personal note: While Dancing Queen is a sensational , rousing song, it’s a runnerup to my favorite ABBA number, which is this show’s emotional centerpiece: The Winner Takes It All. What an incredibly beautiful melody, and with such soulful sentiments. Streep may have been shot in the most unflattering and distractingly windy way possible, but it still sounds grand. This song is so good that it’s hard to ruin it, and it’s been long overdue for a big screen moment.
That said, the song was used to “score” footage long before Mama Mia! And for anyone who missed it almost 27 years ago, I have the answer:
Back in the era of Super Bowl XVI, when the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, such telecasts would end with a song playing over closing credits on top of a montage of game highlights. In this case, that song was a surprisingly bold choice: not a rowdy rocker or buoyant pop hit, but ABBA’s The Winner Takes It All. The title certainly fit, I must admit, but the music was more soulful than exuberant.
Yet I loved it. Because even though I was ardently cheering for the 49ers (I was living in San Francisco at the time), I loved the contrast of a winner’s exaltation with a loser’s disappointment — of a winner taking it all while someone else got nothing — of conquering celebration mixed with melancholy moodiness — of combativeness mixed with compassion. And beyond that, the song, quite simply, is ABBA’s most beautiful.
So thank you for the music, ABBA. Your songs have served us well — including in this film, where they bolster even lame scenes with bubbly, bouncy spirit. Great pop music deserves being showcased, just as this material deserved to be more than a campy, clunky sendup, but instead — dare we say it? — a sure-footed, smart, winner-takes-it-all classic. And though we didn’t get that classic, I’ll still take the mixed bag.