Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski
Running Time: 108 min.
*** (out of ****)
What’s wrong with me? How could I like this? Incompetently directed, broadly acted and almost unbearably cheesy it would almost be too easy for me to slam Mama Mia! I don't even like musicals. The movie is an atrocity and a cinematic train wreck of grand proportions yet I still caught myself jumping up and down in my seat with giddy excitement. There are more laughs in this than all the year’s comedies in the past year combined. The only question: Does it still count if many of them are unintentional? When it concluded I joked with people that it’s nearly impossible to assign this a star rating. It almost doesn’t qualify as a movie, but rather a camera coincidentally capturing insanity in action. It’s so crazy and incoherent that it could be categorized as the Mulholland Drive of musicals.
Criticizing the film for being campy and over the top will get you no where since that’s the sole reason for its existence. No one could possibly argue that its in any way unfaithful to ABBA’s music and claiming their song catalogue deserves better than the treatment it gets here would be an especially ridiculous statement. Shamefully though, long after the final credits rolled I found I just couldn’t get those catchy songs out of my head. And against my will, amidst all the nonsense that unfolded onscreen, I did actually like many of the characters and cared what happened to them, a miracle considering various plots and sub-plots appear and disappear seemingly at will. Plus, I love it when big name actors star in something really silly and you can tell that they know it. Just seeing Meryl Streep’s floating head in an insanely staged psychedelic dream sequence is well worth the admission or rental price, but I want to find director Phyllida Lloyd and give her a giant hug for not only casting Pierce Brosnan, but making him do his own singing. And they say filmmakers never have the audience in mind.
What there is of a plot involves Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) upcoming marriage to Sky (Dominic Cooper) on the remote Greek island she’s been raised on her entire life by her single mother Donna (Streep). After reading her mother’s Diary she discovers that there are three possible men who could be her father: businessman Sam (Brosnan), banker Harry (Colin Firth) and adventurer Bill (Stellan Skarsgard). The goofy two-second flashbacks showing us what they looked like back in the day, while completely predictable, are nonetheless hilarious.
To her mom's surprise, Sophie invites all three men to her wedding in a covert attempt find her real father in time for him to give her away at the wedding. Their presence triggers a trip down memory lane for Donna, who reminisces in song about her romantic foibles and leans on her two best friends and former band mates, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) for emotional support. In details hysterical in their randomness, Rosie is a bestselling cookbook author while Tanya is a presented as some kind of “cougar” on the prowl for younger men, the latter of which results in one of the film’s funnier musical numbers (“Does Your Mother Know”). Both actresses ham it up appropriately in their roles, especially Walters. Of course, Donna is awful slow in figuring out her daughter’s agenda and a quickie paternity test would have probably been far easier, it wouldn’t have nearly been as much fun as the horrendously choreographed song and dance numbers we’re treated to, as well as the bizarre sub-plots.
A minute didn’t pass during this film where I wasn’t laughing, but the biggest laughs came when Brosnan sang, or at least attempted to. Fresh off the early rounds of American Idol and looking as physically uncomfortable as possible, the sounds he makes less resemble singing than the torture of a live animal. But you know what? He doesn’t care and is clearly enjoying himself. You’ve got to respect that. And it is kind of fresh and different having an actor who sings about as bad as we (or at least I) would in a musical. I have to admit though the second he opened his mouth I hit the floor. It takes some getting used to but the good news is you’ll have some time because the amount of singing Brosnan has to do at the end of the film is insane. This would be a heavy load for someone who COULD SING and Lloyd (who must be a sadist) burdens him with long, difficult solo (“When All Is Said and Done”) Christina Aguilera probably would have struggled through. Skarsgard and especially Firth fare much better in the singing department, though neither is particularly impressive. It hardly matters since both have passable voices and believably convey the necessary emotions.
There are two performances of real, genuine value here and thankfully they come from the actresses playing the two most important characters. Streep (a self-professed fan of the musical) clearly knows what she’s gotten herself into and responds the only way an actress of her talent level should in a thankless situation like this: By just letting loose and overplaying everything. She also has a much better singing voice than you’d expect. But the real star of this is Seyfried, who has a VERY bright future ahead of her if this role is any indication. They couldn’t have found a better fit for Sophie as she lights up every scene she’s in with her smile and infectious, playful energy. You’d understand why this guy would want to marry her and each of her mom’s former lovers would want to stake their claim as her father. As far as singing, she’s easily the best of the lot. It’s a star making performance at the highest level.
The entire cast is game but I’m not sure first-timer Lloyd (who helmed the stage play) was ready for this. Her philosophy just seems to be “point and shoot” as she basically just stages a play on film with rapid, distracting cuts and garish cinematography, never really exploiting any visual possibilities (though that it does make Greece look like a desirable vacation spot). Some stage directors make the transition to film with ease but it doesn’t seem as if she bothered to make one at all. This movie has no ambition other than to entertain, which it happens to do very well.
It’s a good thing this film was as successful as it was because if it wasn’t we’d never see Lloyd directing a full-length feature film again. Actually, we may still not. I’m afraid to know what it says about the musical as a genre that it can be this cluelessly directed and turn out well. If a better, more experienced filmmaker were behind the lens the results would probably be far less satisfying. What Lloyd lacks technically she makes up for in actually understanding what the tone should be. In that sense having the same director as the stage version helped considerably.
While most songs in musicals exist to advance the plot here the plot is treated as an afterthought and an excuse to pack in ABBA’s greatest hits But thankfully the movie makes no apologies for that, nor does it hide its agenda. And of course we get the classics that even non-fans will recognize immediately such as the title track, “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me.” In the third act the plot is given up on almost entirely as if everyone in the cast and crew threw their hands up in the air and said, “Screw it! Let’s just do whatever the hell we want.” And it was the right call. I thought Brosnan’s “singing” was hilarious, but that was before I saw him don ABBA’s trademark sequined jumpsuit during the closing credits. Would Tom Cruise do THAT? Brosnan has balls of steel for taking this role and whatever he was paid isn’t nearly enough for the humiliation he gleefully endures. What a pro.
My faith is now restored that movie executives still have brains when in a brilliant and ridiculously brave counter programming strategy they decided to open this against The Dark Knight, the reasoning being that it was the only movie that could compete against it because the target audience was so drastically different. The result was the highest grossing musical of all-time here and the highest grossing MOTION PICTURE OF ALL-TIME in the U.K. (beating Titanic!) Go in with that in mind and you’re destined for disappointment. Approach this knowing it's supposed to be stupid and you're fine. Yet strangely, I can see how it’s done so well financially because it’s just pure 100% fun and is one of the few movies released this year that knows what it wants to do and actually does it.
Making a really good bad film is a lost art that takes a lot of talent, or rather a special kind of lack of it. Someone could make a case for this being on either their best or worst list of the year and be easily able to present a strong argument for both. I’m almost tempted to give this a higher rating but just can’t, at least not publicly. It’s too embarrassing. Mama Mia! definitely ranks among the guiltiest of guilty pleasures.