Mamma Mia is the latest Broadway musical to make its way to the big screen, bringing with it a cast led by Meryl Streep. I went into this movie with high hopes. I LOVE musicals with a passion, I love Abba, this should be awesome, right?
Well . . . . no, not so much. You know a movie has problems when during a big production number your thought is “This kind of reminds me of that scene in From Justin to Kelly.” I had that exact thought as Christine Baranski was camping it up on the beach like a drag queen singing “Does Your Mother Know?”. . . and it was a thought I couldn’t shake for the rest of the movie.
Mamma Mia uses the music of Abba to tell the story of Sophie, a young woman who has grown up on a Greek island where her mother Donna runs a dilapidated hotel. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie has just one dream – to be walked down the aisle by the father she’s never known. A little sleuthing leads Sophie to the conclusion that her father is one of three men that Donna slept with over the course of a few weeks one summer 20 years ago. Sophie invites all three men to the wedding in the hope of discovering which one is her father.
It’s a simple enough story, but one which I never became all that interested in. We don’t get to know Sophie all that well, so it’s hard to care who her father is or whether her wedding to the cute but dull Sky will go off without a hitch. Sophie remains a mostly peripheral character as the focus of the movie shifts more to Donna and her reaction to seeing these three men. There’s little interaction between Donna and Sophie until a third act musical number where Donna helps Sophie prepare for the wedding – a number that’s meant to be sweet and touching but comes across as rather dull since we don’t have a lot emotionally invested in this relationship – or any of the movie’s relationships for that matter.
Perhaps a more musically inclined cast would have helped. Meryl Streep has a nice voice (as anyone who has seen Postcards from the Edge or A Prairie Home Companion will attest) but it’s not a Broadway voice. More than once, you could hear the strain in her voice as she tried to belt or hit a certain note. Bless her heart, she does seem to be having a good time. It’s clear, though, that at times, Meryl is just coasting here and not bringing anything particularly new to Donna. It’s unsettling at times to watch her camping around – and the presence of a child named Sophie here makes you question Meryl’s choice to take on this project.
Meryl, though, is probably the most capable of the singing leads, although Amanda Seyfried gives Sophie a sweet enough voice and Colin Firth was better than I expected. At least they don’t sound like a constipated Muppet like Pierce Brosnan does. When he began warbling his way through “SOS,” I could not control the convulsive laughter. It was painful! Brosnan isn’t a particularly great actor, either, so he’s not able to salvage even that part of this role. Surely there are older leading men out there capable of singing who could have taken this part and spared us this misery.
Aside from the performances, Mamma Mia has some other problems. The staging of the film is rather stagnant and the musical numbers, with the exception of the rousing Dancing Queen, often lack the energy that could be found in more successful recent musical films such as Hairspray or Chicago. The musical numbers were so dull that my companion took one as an opportunity to head to the bathroom – and when a gay man can’t sit through a musical number, you know you have a problem. The choreography is bland, often resorting to little more than hokey line dancing rather than trying for something a little more visually interesting. Director Phyllida Law is making her feature film debut here, coming to the film from the world of opera. A more seasoned hand could have been used here, perhaps Adam Shankman who worked wonders with Hairspray or Rob Marshall who made the seemingly unfilmable Chicago a viable and Oscar-winning film. The movie needed more behind the camera than it got.
Mamma Mia isn’t all bad. Julie Walters is quite funny as Donna’s friend Rosie, often coming very close to stealing the movie right out from under Meryl. The production design is lovely – but if I’m paying attention to the sets during a musical, something is wrong.
I feel bad not liking this movie. As a fan of musical theatre (and musicals in general), I so wanted this to be a great film and help keep musicals alive in film. And I might be in a minority. The many, many older women surrounding me at the theatre seemed perfectly charmed by the film. I heard several raving about wanting to see it again as they walked out of the theatre. And it is nice to have a film out there that has such an appeal for women, particularly older women. It’s just too bad they couldn’t have been given a better movie.