Allow me some admissions right up front: I’ve always loved ABBA’s “S.O.S.,” one of the most infectious, insidiously hummable pop hits of the ‘70s. I find “Knowing Me, Knowing You” a pleasant-enough concoction. Why, even after Muriel’s Wedding I still don’t mind hearing “Dancing Queen” when I come across it on the radio, or when one of my daughters insists on hearing it in the minivan CD player. The overdubbed vocals of that song (and most of their other hits) layered one on top of the other, sometimes in harmony, sometimes creating a synthetic chorus of two voices multiplied seemingly ad infinitum on the same line, lend themselves splendidly to warbled accompaniment in one’s shower or automobile. (The voices on the records themselves are often artless and unabashed enough to already seem like sing-alongs to songs on which the real lead vocalists have been banished, karaoke style.) And though I was never completely taken by ABBA’s brand of bombastic, phonetic-English disco machinery, I’ve never resented that they existed or that they have been such a consistent and bankable worldwide success. Until now, perhaps.
Mamma Mia, the movie version of the runaway stage cash cow in which a dozen-and-a-half or so ABBA songs are clumsily jerry-rigged and slotted into a flimsy plot revolving around a young girl who surreptitiously invites three of her mother’s former lovers, one of which may be her father, to her Greek island wedding, ought to test the resolve of anyone who ever held a tune like “Fernando” or “Honey Honey” dear. And the movie certainly ought to offend anyone who cares anything about the quality and enduring legacy of movie musicals. For it turns out that Mamma Mia is shockingly bad as both a musical and a movie. The big numbers are often girded with a near-subliminal chorus that sings along with the stars (the original ABBA recordings have been shelved) in order to beef up their tepid voices and provide sonic reassurance of the familiar ABBA-style vocals, while the cast and dancers cavort on the beaches and byways of this movie-fantasy Greek paradise guided by a cheerleading troupe’s idea of choreography. What’s worse, the songs don’t express anything about the characters or their feelings—they’re used to goose the audience, and the movie, with a specious sort of plasticized exuberance that the filmmakers (a term used very lightly here) hope will be easily mistaken for a good time. (The movie’s artifice is further blemished by memories of the other movie in 2008 to feature familiar and not-so-familiar rock and pop tunes successfully reinterpreted and given new meaning by unlikely voices, the flawed but moving documentary Young at Heart.)
Meanwhile the songs, stripped of the arid, slightly robotic production values which gave the original recordings their eerie energy, and put into the mouths of a cast of actors whose vocal talents range from thin, lovely fragility (Amanda Seyfried) to confidence (Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski) to ghastly ineptitude (Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters and just about everyone else, none of whom could find their way around a tune even with the assistance of the most advanced G.P.S. tracking system), are themselves exposed as goofy at best, but more often just gross, dumb and fatuous. And the actors fare even worse. Oliver Reed jack-hammering his way through Tommy at least had that movie’s stylish excess to help elaborate the pub-crawling creepiness of his vocal characterization. But first-time director Phyllida Lloyd, working from Catherine Johnson’s script (both are veterans of the original stage production), leaves folks like Streep and Brosnan, and Walters and Baranski and Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgaard twisting atonally in the Mediterreanean breeze. And she brings near-zero sense of filmmaking craft to bear on the tenuous connective tissue that passes for dramatic scenes in between each big musical fizzle. What are we to make of Streep’s character, the titular mamma who spends the first half hour of the movie reunited with her insufferable pals in gales of fake laughter, pouring on the forced high spirits of middle-age reclaiming lost youth? (This is the movie’s M.O. in a nutshell). The way this woman vacillates between excitement and distress and hysteria when she finds out those three men from her past have arrived for the wedding borders on split-personality psychosis. (The inconsistency is exacerbated by the performance of the chirpy title tune, which is shoehorned in between Streep’s fits of fretting and hand-wringing to produce yet another literally show-stopping sequence.) The Oscar-winner is so busy selling her character’s free spirit that she never bothers to ground her in a recognizable human scale of emotion—every note, both sung and spoken, is infused with a fine actor’s attempt to breathe some kind of life into this gossamer-thin conceit, but the end result is fussy, strained, overmodulated, and not just a little embarrassing.
The director “opens up” the stage show in every obvious, clunky way—characters spend a lot of time running along beaches and up steep pathways—but Lloyd never tailors the material for anything resembling the real world; everything is played as though the cast were projecting to a neighboring island dotted with fake trees. And the whole of the movie feels like someone’s shapeless home movies of an exotic holiday in which all sense of the location’s beauty is dumped (has the Greek coast ever before looked so nondescript and unappealing on film?) in favor of a grueling chronicle of the host’s every drunken moment of karaoke glory. (Like most booze-inspired public warbling, this movie would seem to require severe inebriation as a prerequisite for proper appreciation.)
But as lost as Lloyd is as a storyteller, she is equally clueless at staging music and dance. The big production numbers (“Dancing Queen, Does Your Mother Know?, Voulez-vous”) are bad enough—one gets the idea that the director’s input amounted to getting her cast hammered and telling them to just go out there and feel it, baby. But it’s those intimate ballads, back-loaded into the film’s second half, where Mamma Mia careens from the merely misconceived to the genuinely grotesque. The movie’s finest, most delicate, most convincing moment is the unadorned staging of “Slipping through My Fingers,” as Streep’s (Ma)Donna reluctantly helps her daughter Sophie (Seyfried) prepare in the moments before the wedding. Here Streep’s strenuous attempts at acting the song work because the effects—a plaintive glance, a bittersweet smile, a laugh-- are scaled down. They build the emotion of the moment rather than work against it. And the song, a relatively restrained, uncharacteristically delicate ballad, is a good showcase for the vocal talents of Streep and Seyfried, easily the best singers in the cast. Unfortunately, “Slipping through My Fingers” is preceded by Brosnan braying his way through “S.O.S.” (My head hung several times out of sheer embarrassment), so some of its potential power is diminished by the after-effects of the actor’s rummy, undisciplined tenor still ringing in the ears. Worse, however, is the fact that the genuine connection between Streep and Seyfried, a moment where the movie actually delivers on the examination of mother-daughter dynamics to which it has up to now only paid facile lip service, is undermined by what follows-- the absolute nadir in a musical already packed to the rafters with low blows. On the way to the picturesque hillside chapel Brosnan confronts Streep about their shared past, and Streep counters with “The Winner Takes It All,” in which she pushes her timid director aside (Lloyd seems plenty content to just flip the camera’s “on” switch and walk away) and overacts the already bombastic tune with a battery of grandstanding gestures and italicized, boldfaced sincerity that might make Ethel Merman blush. The “winner” here, as it turns out, is Brosnan, who had the good sense to keep far enough away from Streep during this number that he spends a goodly portion of it off-screen.
There’s no pleasure in denigrating an obvious disaster like Mamma Mia. But there’s even less pleasure to be had in sitting through it. I sincerely hoped this movie might be as much fun as was last summer’s Hairspray, a movie for which I had no expectations whatsoever. But where Hairspray’s every moment was suffused with the genuine giddy joy of performing, the cheerful enthusiasm on display in Mamma Mia couldn’t be more synthetic and predigested. I can absolutely believe that the stage show might feel completely different. The very fact of Mamma Mia’s existence under a proscenium automatically lends a degree of forgiving stylization to this gussied-up revue that is completely beyond Phyllida Lloyd as a film director—she displays absolutely no sense, moment to moment, of what makes a film work, what makes a film a film. My wife, in that way she has of summing up things succinctly (a quality which makes our co-existence pretty hilarious in itself), said Mamma Mia reminded her of nothing less than a wide-screen Mentos commercial run amok, and by God, that’s precisely what it feels like. As the post-wedding party winds down (don’t worry—I wouldn’t dream of revealing the movie’s shocking twist!), stunned and disillusioned by the whole experience, I welcomed the plaintive vibrato of Seyfried’s tender, unaffected voice as the ballad that began the movie seemed to now end it. Would that it were so. The end credits are underscored by Streep and gal pals doing the obligatory and frightening liquored-up-chicks-doing-“Dancing Queen”-in-gaudy-‘70s-costumes bit, followed by Brosnan and the other leathery boy toys joining them for “Waterloo,” both numbers punctuated by the most skin-crawling shattering of the fourth wall ever committed to film. If, after all this, you can still say you were entertained by Mamma Mia, then God bless and may you enjoy it countless times in the privacy of your own home on DVD. But I have to believe that any movie that invites comparison with Can’t Stop the Music, any movie that makes me wish even for a second that I was watching Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead, deserves my heartiest derision. Mamma Mia? Madre de dios!