When I first saw the trailer for "Mamma Mia!" the new film based on the hit Broadway musical, featuring the songs of ABBA and starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard, I remember thinking, "You look like a movie star." I would pay to watch Meryl Streep read the phone book, so it's almost a sin for me to miss any of her films, there's no other place in this world I would rather be. She's a pretty good singer and when you throw in a bit of rock music, everything is fine.
People everywhere, a sense of expectation in the air, it's a good thing "Mamma Mia" has those infectious songs included in the score because without them, this new film would become unbearable. It is a film that is so poorly directed it threatens to bury the genre that was recently reborn with the success of "Moulin Rouge", "Chicago" and "Hairspray". It was the age of no regret. Oh, yes.
It was a Friday night and the lights were low, so I was in the mood for a dance and a film filled with the energy, good times and great singing I found in the most recent musicals to hit the silver screen. I still see it all.
The film begins promisingly, as Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, HBO's "Big Love", "Alpha Dog"), a young woman is about to get married at her mom's rundown hotel on a magical Greek Island. But Sophie has never even met her father and doesn't know who he has, so she mails letters to the three men who might be her father, without her mother's knowledge. Harry (Colin Firth), an uptight British banker, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), a writer who relates the adventures of his travels in his many books, and Sam (Pierce Brosnan) an architect living in New York. Each immediately gets on a plane and jets to Greece. When they arrive, Donna (Meryl Streep) is surprised, to say the least, to see three past suitors pop up on the island. But she has other things to deal with as people are everywhere and a sense of expectation is hanging in the air. Donna's best friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) arrive and the former best friends try to cope with so many people and situations while still trying to throw a wedding. Sophie is about to marry Sky (Dominic Cooper, "The History Boys") and while Donna doesn't understand why her daughter wants to get married, she wants to make it work. For Sophie. Even though she knows when her daughter is gone, though she'll try how can she carry on?
"Mamma Mia!" directed by Phylidia Law, who directed the stage version, has never directed a film before. And it shows. Quite frequently. Think I'm going crazy? Ah-ha. And makes this one of the most poorly directed films I have seen. Especially one with this caliber of talent involved. But I can't take a chance of a flick like you. It's something I can't do.
As the narrative begins to unfold at a frighteningly fast pace, a pace that negates any hope of people finding the story believable, the director suddenly throws in a music video. Meryl Streep's Donna is singing a song with her two friends when she suddenly ends up on a yacht with a rich old guy. They are, of course, singing "Money, money, money" and there are shots of the three ladies on lounge chairs, fabric flowing around them. Wait, what was that? An out of focus shot of the ladies lounging in front of brightly printed fabric on the upper deck of the yacht?
The poorly shot and edited music video stands out like a sore thumb and completely removes the viewer from the mythical Greek Island where the story is set. It also sets the tone for many similar instances throughout the film. Thankfully, some musical numbers are done in a more conventional style, allowing the music and actors to perform, but the fact that any are constructed like bad videos from the 80s mars the film and make me unwilling to take a chance on "Mamma Mia!"
Meryl Streep clearly has some vocal training in her past. She does a very good job and provides the necessary chops to both sing and act these songs. This is a real benefit as she is part of a majority of the songs. But she shouldn't count on adding any Oscar nominations to her resume. While her singing is good, her acting is pretty broad as she runs around, flapping her arms wildly, throughout the film. Clearly, the film isn't trying to go for anything resembling reality, but would a little subtlety be a bad thing? Every time Streep's Donna (or most of the actors for that matter) appear on screen, the seem to have one emotion to get across and they appear to have been directed to telegraph that emotion loud and clear.
We only get a glimpse of the Streep we know and love very late in the film when Donna reacts to Sophie asking her to help her get ready for her wedding. This is an unexpected moment for Donna and Streep conveys the emotion well, while making her character struggle with how much of this emotion she should reveal. Later, Donna and Sam (Brosnan) have a discussion before going to her daughter's wedding. In this moment, we get a feeling for the struggle Donna's life has been, the struggle she has had to raise her daughter alone, to try to give her the things she never had while growing up.
It doesn't help Streep that she has her own little posse in the film. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters play Tanya and Rosie, respectively, two of Donna's oldest friends. When they arrive, a whirlwind of conversation, laughter, singing and double entendres issue forth. The three women create a sort of female "Three Stooges" and Tanya and Rosie represent variations on the wild woman Donna wishes she could have been. But she had a daughter and had to struggle to raise her. Get it. The two friends represent what Donna could never have. So when they get together, they become a wild trio again. Baranski's Tanya flirts with a cute Jamaican bartender (there are a lot of those on remote Greek Islands) and Walter's Rosie tries gamely to keep up and contribute to the songs.
So when you're near me, darling can't you hear me or any of the three male leads, all of whom seem somehow less comical and more real, like they are trying gamely to create real characters and make this a real film. Sam and Harry (Brosnan and Firth) miss the last ferry from the mainland to the little island where the wedding is to take place. They end up meeting Bill (Skarsgard) who has his own boat. He offers them a lift and no one knows who the others are. Oddly, because the rest of the film is so broad in many other respects, it seems weird that these guys don't ham it up more. Even though they are better, because they are better, it points out the many problems with the film, consistency among them.
I think a key reason these characters seem more believable is that they do the least amount of singing. It also appears that each of the males has the least amount of natural singing ability, so this seems a good fit. Brosnan's Sam shares a duet with Donna and they sing "S.O.S." Beyond that, the guys stay primarily in the background, popping in for an occasional line or to join the dancing chorus.
Amanda Seyfried is good as Sophie. She displays the requisite level of sophistication and love for a twenty year old about to marry. She also appears fairly secretive and devious which fits given she is barely out of her teens. She invites the three possible fathers to her wedding, because she wants her real father to give her away. But Sky (Dominic Cooper) doesn't understand this and when he learns of her secret, he gets mad and storms out. Donna doesn't understand why her daughter wants to get married so young in the first place, and wishes she would go out and experience the world, but she goes ahead with the plans, because it is what her daughter wants. Sophie ends up reading her mom's diary and finds entries about the three men, prompting her to send the letters without her mom's knowledge.
Naturally, the sight of three former lovers, arriving without her knowledge, proceeds to flummox Donna a bit. And the wedding becomes even more complicated.
And Donna can't fall in love with all three men again. By the climax, she has decided who she most loves but what to do with the other two guys? You can't have them disappointed, so the narrative chunkily gives them reasons not to mourn the loss of Donna's love.
Voulez- vous. (ah- ha!)
The movie musical is a genre that has been experiencing positive regrowth after the success of "Moulin Rouge", "Chicago" and "Hairspray". Join me as we pause and hope this new entry, this new, broad, comical entry, doesn't send the musical genre back to the animated film world.
In fact, "Mamma Mia!" really deserves to belong to that genre anyway, as it is almost a live action cartoon.