Mamma Mia! is the movie version of Red Bull. It is absolutely going to raise your energy level, but it's practically guaranteed to give you the jitters, it's artificially sweet, and it leaves a foul chemical aftertaste.
Based on the ginormous Broadway hit, Mamma Mia! begins on a supremely photogenic Greek island with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), shortly before her wedding to Sky (Dominic Cooper), sending out invitations to the three men who might be her biological father; the three men who had relations with her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) one marvelous summer 21 years ago. As Donna and her old friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) reminisce about the good old days, Sophie has to deal with the unexpected development that all three men show up: architect Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), banker Harry Bright (Colin Firth), and travel writer Bill (Stellan Skarsgård). I can already see your brow furrowing: "Hey, isn't that pretty close to the story of the little-known 1968 sex farce Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell?" Yeah, maybe, but Buona Sera isn't chockablock full of songs from the Swedish disco superstars ABBA.
(In which case, perhaps it should have taken a cue from the band's music videos, and been a remake of a Bergman film...Summer with Monika, perhaps. Who sets an ABBA musical in Greece?)
The problem with the film is a simple one, and no, it's not that it's a jukebox musical, although Lord knows it's easy enough to fuck up that particular genre, which can be as good as Across the Universe or as bad as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The problem is that everyone involved is extraordinarily desperate to make Mamma Mia! the most god-damnedest fun summer musical extravaganza that you ever did see, and they fall very far short of that goal, and it is a truth universally recognised that the more anxious you are to produce a super-duper fun movie, the more dire the results will be if you miss. To make my case, I shall turn to the most manic & therefore the saddest moment in the film: the production number set to ABBA's #1 super-smash "Dancing Queen". In the context of the story, this song is about Rosie and Tanya trying to remind Donna of the great old times when they were all young and lively, and to convince her that she's still got it going on. As they sing and dance from Donna's bedroom down the streets of their darling Greek town, all the local women stop whatever labor they're doing, and follow the three to the docks, where seemingly the entire female population of the island joins them in a chorus line. Setting aside the peculiar decision to make "Dancing Queen" into some sort of half-assed feminist statement, the number suffers greatly from being too big for its own good: why end with a giant mosh pit of dancing ladies when you could just as easily make it about three women having a good time in private? And then there's the matter of the number's pointless and irritating slow-motion shots, but those are entirely beside the point. The point is, first-time film director Phyllida Lloyd has decided that bigger is necessarily better and funner, and ain't nobody going to stop her from making everything as giant as she possibly can.
The results aren't fun, so much as they are sad. Yes, that is the word. Mamma Mia! is a sad movie, with the energy of a gang of depressed clowns hiding their depression in a haze of cocaine.
There might not be anything as utterly dispiriting as watching people pretending to have fun, and that is quite literally the only card the movie has to play. It tries so hard to be an uplifiting tale about women of a certain age grabbing life by the balls, of stuffy men letting go of their stuffiness, of young people drinking deeply of life, and it all comes across as maniacs faking jollity. Besides Lloyd's chaotic, ill-considered direction (I'm not sure if I'm meant to admire that this über-chick flick was directed by a woman, but bad directing is going to be bad directing, whether you have a penis or not), most of this can be blamed on the frantic performances given by Baranski, Walters, and - I'm heartbroken to say - Ms. Streep herself. I might go so far as to call it the worst performance of Streep's career, if only I'd seen more of her less-regarded pictures; at any rate, it comes across like her idea of "fun-loving middle-aged gal" is to play her role according to the mid-'90s Jim Carrey playbook, with just a bit less mugging and comic vocalisations, and no talking assholes whatever.
At least she sings well enough (as suggested by A Prairie Home Companion, two years ago), as indeed almost everyone sings well enough, given that nobody ever claimed that the ABBA songbook was full of particularly vicious melodies, and given that it's all little more than a movie star karaoke party. The only exception is Brosnan, who proves that it is indeed possible to screw up ABBA with a singing voice that sounds a bit like a dairy cow giving birth. So if the one and only reason you want to see the film is because you like ABBA and you like famous people and you want the two to be combined, sally forth! Although you might be better-served by just picking up the soundtrack CD. Seriously, though, lousy singing has recently been a bane of the musical genre (damn you, Mr. Tim Burton, damn you to Hell), so the fact that the singing is at least decent in this film counts as a triumph.
Really, the only particularly good, pleasing thing about this film which tries so unfortunately hard to please is that lovely and talented Amanda Seyfried comes across exactly the way her role needs, charming and good-natured, with a crisp, clear voice. In one number, she canoodles in the ocean with the almost as lovely Cooper, and the resultant explosion of youthful eye candy is probably the best moment in the whole film; assuming, that is, that you've written off the songs by this point (I had), and hot beach sex is the only thing left to keep your attention occupied (it was for me). No, despite all the good intentions in the world, Mamma Mia! is just too clumsy, spastic and broad to function in anything like the way it's supposed to. This is what the death rattle of the film musical sounds like, and as a particular lover of that genre, I couldn't be sadder. There's only emptiness, nothing to say.