Yes, I drew the short straw this weekend. But what about all those people packing the theater for the Friday matinee I attended? What attracted them? Given that it was a largely senior crowd, I’m suspecting some of my fellow patrons were the obliging aunties of pre-teens who broke things until someone agreed to ferry them to the nearest Dark Knight screening. Or, Mamma Mia! just managed to collect an impressive number of middle-aged women who still believe that twinkle in Pierce Brosnan’s eye is directed at them. But before we start deriding middle-aged women and the suck-ass films troglodytes tell us only they can love, I’ll point out that there were over a dozen middle-aged men in my audience, who came to the show alone. Have they carried a torch for Meryl Streep since The Deer Hunter? Were they perving after Amanda Seyfried? Were they lusting after Colin Firth? What prompted a phalanx of businessmen to leave work early and slink incognito to a marshmallow musical? I’m not one for making gender/sexuality generalizations — in fact I actively campaign against them in my day-to-day life — but I admit this event satisfied my inner contrarian and helped to pass the time until the trailers warmed the screen.
It’s also helping to pad this review, since, honest to Zod, I have no idea what to really say about this film. I’m not armed with an endless supply of synonyms for “feel-good” or “crowd-pleaser” or “you’ll get what you pay for, if this is the kind of thing you enjoy paying for.” Mamma Mia! was co-produced (along with Tom Hanks and the male half of ABBA) by Rita Wilson, who’s still riding the same Love Greece — or else! hobby-horse she rode to splinters with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I could almost see her panting behind the screen with toothy imperative, daring me not to admire her Greekness. Based on the landmark(ish) musical, Mamma Mia! is loaded with cheeky humor that will only come off as cheeky to a certain sheltered set; people sing into hair-dryers, fall out of boats, waddle in flippers, and hang from rooftops by their fingernails — and the audience laughed on cue (I don’t think my particular audience gets out much). The movie’s driven by an awkward narrative whose sole purpose is to bind together a bunch of ABBA hits — awkwardly. The musical numbers look like they were choreographed by Corky St. Clair; the cute is doled out in toxic doses; and there’s a hell of a lot of fanfare here that was probably meant to explode off the screen but generally pops a thin fart instead (apparently it is possible to drain the chintzy power out of an ABBA song). Despite the cast, production budget, and the trove of classic love-and-dance anthems that prop this thing up, Mamma Mia! comes off like a pastry left in the rain. A lot of readers, and no doubt box-office numbers, will disagree with me, but many Pajibans know where I stand on musicals in general (with a few beloved exceptions) and sentimental gak in particular (ibid), and they know their own tastes well enough to take a contrary perspective. I’m not in service to the film’s built-in viewership so much as I am to those who might be wondering (like I did) if good stuff like ABBA + Greece + Seyfried’s eyes and curves can maybe disperse the Splenda. In a word: nay.
The movie, like the musical, centers on Sophie (Seyfried), a young woman raised by her expat mother (Streep) on a pastoral Greek island. Sophie’s about to get married. Not knowing who her father is, but yearning the creepy yearn of having her bio-dad Give Her Away at the wedding, she sends out invitations to three strangers, all of whom boinked her mom the summer Sophie was conceived. The three strangers show up and hijinks ensue. All three men tenderly recall their affairs with Streep’s Donna, and Donna tenderly recalls her affairs with them in turn, to varying degrees; while Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Firth) are fond fools from her youth, Sam (Brosnan) seems to have deposited some bedrock in her soul. Threes are the name of the structural game, here: Sophie’s two best friends arrive for the wedding, and they’re mirrored in Donna and her two best friends from way back, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). The younger trio is given next to nothing to do — it’s the older trio of women, the three men, and an independent Sophie who animate what there is to animate of a generic Broadway script.
Mamma Mia!’s main indulgence, in fact, isn’t the ABBA tribute or the uninspired love/family story, but the relationship between the three older women. We’re knocked over the head with it and commanded to celebrate the friends’ exuberance. It’s The First Wives Club ornamented with community theater tits-and-teeth. Not to say there isn’t an audience for this — one that, like any other, deserves to see itself represented onscreen — but this is one of those insular self-congratulations that can alienate viewers who aren’t part of the pack themselves. I can identity with any kind of character or demographic when it’s fully rendered and well drawn — and fictional characters different from ourselves are usually the most engrossing — but this here’s some weak stereotypical shit made giddy on the fumes of its own gas, and I suspect, like The First Wives Club, it will only endear my mother’s demographic to itself.
Other viewers will have to content themselves with the musical numbers (if that’s their cuppa) and the fairy-tale Aegean sparkling brighter than Amanda Seyfried’s aura. The movie is a periwinkle charm to look at — a canvas of light blues and sun-baked clay, lovingly (and I mean lovingly) photographed. These features will help Mamma Mia! appeal to a lot of people, especially those who regard films as little more than escape-hatches from life. Donna runs a quaint little villa staffed by quaint locals, and there’s no question that Sophie’s lived her first 20 years in a perfect Arcadia, where True Love comes easy and blond hair grows in abundance. The scenery is helped along by Seyfried and Streep, who give the film a little core of authenticity that isn’t snuffed out by all the contrivances billowing around it. There is no fault to find in either of the lead actors — Streep, it turns out, can make the silliest scene look almost convincing, even when she’s warbling “The Winner Takes It All” to Pierce Brosnan on a cliff-top. And Seyfried has just enough chops to hold her own opposite Streep, not to mention infinite charisma.
The mother-daughter relationship is highly idealized, but I bought into its sweetness as the movie wore on, even if I couldn’t buy into much else. I especially couldn’t buy into Baranski’s scarlet horndog, or Brosnan’s gruesome singing, or the “Dancing Queen” extravaganza that sucked island women into a train like the Pied Piper of Premarin. Thank God for Streep, still luminous (outside of the “Super Trouper” number, where she’s the dragged-out spit of Terence Stamp’s Bernadette) and talented enough to make marbles out of mud in her mouth; thank God for beautiful Mediterranean landscapes (I predict a spike in Americans getting hitched in crumbling Greek monasteries next year); and thank God for the ABBA anthems themselves, which give a lift to the most hackneyed moments, even when they’re part of the moment’s problems. These, along with a strong cast who can (with one or two exceptions) carry a disco tune, gave me a way into the movie — however narrow — and convinced me that there’s enough here to satisfy its intended audience: it looks good, it feels good, it sounds good enough to get the job done. I think Mamma Mia! sinks deep, in spots, but it also puffs out like an appealing meringue in others; it’s part charming and part just plain awful, like the ABBA tunes so many of us love without shame. In that dichotic sense, I guess, the production works. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on July 19, 2008.)