July 24, 2008

Mamma Mia!

** out of ****

Unless you love ABBA, “Mamma Mia!” may not be the film for you. Sure, it is exuberant and quite a delight, but the magic only works if you know and love all of ABBA’s songs. Because of these songs, the best scenes of “Mamma Mia!” involve the musical numbers, but otherwise, the film may inspire viewers to cry “S.O.S.!”

Based on the stage musical, the film follows Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is going to marry Sky (Dominic Cooper), but only after she has invited her father(s) (Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, or Pierce Brosnan - you guess) to the wedding to walk her down the aisle. Her fathers’ surprise arrival displeases Donna (Meryl Streep), Sophie’s hardworking, exhausted ex-singer mother who runs a hotel on a Greek island. While Donna comes to terms with the male figures from her past, pre-island wedding, her wacky friends and former backup singers, Rosie and Tanya (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, respectively) join along for moral support. As the wedding day finally approaches, Sophie struggles to figure out which of the three men is her father before she walks down the aisle and on toward her future, all in the key of ABBA.

Based on the 1968 film “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” (with a hint of “Muriel’s Wedding,” perhaps?), “Mamma Mia!” is cute and fun, but lacks the charm of last summer’s “Hairspray.” Meryl Streep shines, naturally, as Donna, and I particularly enjoyed her flamboyance on the boat in “Money, Money, Money.” I have only heard Meryl sing in at least two other movies, “Death Becomes Her” and “Postcards From the Edge,” but nothing could prepare me for her applaudable, showstopping interpretation of “The Winner Takes It All.” Meanwhile, the other shining star is Amanda Seyfried, who blows me away as Sophie. I was concerned her performance would remind me too much of her more familiar role as Karen in “Mean Girls,” but she nails her character’s innocence and curiosity without the insipidness and bewilderment.

Countering these two actresses is Pierce Brosnan, who should never sing or remove his shirt again. His “S.O.S.” is particularly wrenching, but not in the emotional way. Though he does sing in tune, Brosnan needs to leave future musical endeavors to the pros.

The most fun of the show’s numbers are probably the “girl power”-riddled “Dancing Queen” and “Does Your Mother Know,” which features Tanya, Pepper, and a plethora of youths in some kind of outtake from a 50’s Frankie and Annette movie. The “Voulez-Vous” sequence, which was well-directed, stylistically & musically, really brings the film back to the stage. The camera circling so quickly around Sophie presents her inner anxieties, so it is quite fascinating.

A nice touch to the film is the Greek chorus. Granted, it is not the same decked-out Greek chorus applied to Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite,” but its presence adds humor to the musical. For example, they comment on the show during Meryl Streep’s first number, “Money, Money, Money,” by adding such back-up lines as “Ain’t it sad?” Not simply the Broadway chorus that provides back-up vocals, they are like the original Greek chorus that provides running commentary, remarking upon the states-of-being of the show’s actors. I particularly enjoyed discovering this subtext, and I thought it was clever for the film with its Greek setting (as if you could not tell from the Aphrodite fountain or heavenly farewell).

A jukebox musical like this really prompts viewers like me to scratch my head, wondering, “Who knew they could fit all of these ABBA songs so perfectly into one musical!” I do think “Mamma Mia!” only works for ABBA fans, though fans of the musical (or musicals, in general) should be able to enjoy it as well, despite the differences from the stage to the set. The first ten to fifteen minutes are a struggle because the average ABBA-crazed viewer wants to skip the talking and cut to the “Dancing Queen,” so after that he or she will be pleased on the whole.

For the true ABBA fan, you will not walk away unhappily from the movie theater (but stick around for the credits!). On the other hand, for the average viewer, you might want your money back.

“Mamma Mia!” is playing now in theaters across the country.

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