Director: Phyllida Lloyd. Cast: Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic
Cooper, Rachel McDowall, Ashley Lilley, Philip Michael, Juan Pablo Di Pace, Niall Buggy. Screenplay: Catherine Johnson (based on the musical Mamma Mia!,
book by Catherine Johnson, score by Benny Andersson and Bjørn Ulvaeus).
Casting Meryl Streep in the
lead of Mamma Mia! is like asking a sommelier to host a CapriSun tasting. But, hey:
Meryl apparently wants to be there, I always like seeing her, and I'm not above a juice box. Enjoying Mamma Mia!, I naïvely figured, is all about throwing yourself into a certain
anti-nutritious abandon: poking your straw into this movie and sucking it down fast. Why resist?
I discovered quickly, though, that there is not much to resist, and even less to embrace. Mamma
Mia! is barely a film and certainly not a musical, no matter how many songs have been plied
into it. I've known people who take exception to films like Chicago
and Hairspray on the grounds that their Hollywood casts
aren't up to the demands of the stage-inspired choreography, and that the camerawork and
editing militate against a coherent expression of physical prowess and orchestrated movement.
At times I agree, although Hairspray, at least, is one of the more beguiling studio
entertainments of the past few years. These, however, aren't even the relevant grounds of
objection to Mamma Mia!, where there is no choreography to speak of except the actors
being silly, lunging at polyester props and futzing with their costumes in order to bide
their time through the next verse of a melodically brilliant but dramatically awkward ABBA
tune. This isn't the Drama Club for amateurs; it's recess for adults, with Greece typecast
in the role of the Playground. The words and music of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
provide the jungle-gyms and monkey-bars on which the actors strut and swing and quite
knowingly make asses of themselves.
This needn't ensure a recipe for flaccid disaster, though it starts to imply one, and one
can only assume that after 25 years in movies and 30 screen credits apiece, talents like
Julie Walters and Christine Baranski must have thought they'd be doing more by now than lobbing
pirate hats, fake cocktails, and lame plastic-surgery jokes from the sidelines of a
two-hour candygram. Then again, I'd do a lot in exchange for a working vacation in the
Mediterranean with Meryl Streep. Certainly ABBA cannot be blamed for any of the movie's
grim failures, nor even for its sun-dappled ones. Their songsmithing is unimpeachable,
and Mamma Mia! is virtually pre-empted from exhausting all of its welcome when there's
always another winning, familiar tune around the corner, however incongruous in "context"
(a word roundly embarrassed by the present application).
The chief problems, leaving room for the huskily over-earnest Pierce Brosnan and the snoozing
cinematographer Haras Zambarloukos, are producer Judy Craymer, writer Catherine Johnson, and
director Phyllida Lloyd, the three Fates who mounted Mamma Mia!'s globetrotting stage
production and then reaped its considerable booty. Good for them, one tries to concede, for spotting
one of the few pop songbooks in existence that could survive even the most inept theatrical translation
to provide a reasonable evening's entertainment. Good for them for having the stalwart
resolve and the platinum-caliber agents that could block other creative masterminds from getting
their grasping hands on this golden hen. That no one is ever going to offer Phyllida Lloyd
a big payday to direct anything else, save perhaps a Vegas production of Tony 'n' Tina's
Wedding, is even more certain now that we've seen the movie than it was when she first signed
on that dotted, glittery line. Armed with a camera, a bedazzler, and an outlandishly
accommodating star, Lloyd has sallied forth and delivered what the DVD commentary will inevitably
sanctify as her "vision"something to do with magic-markering the ocean turquoise and
the air bright yellow, with reconfiguring Greece as a nation of pale white people, with
keeping a flubbed Baranski line and Streep's and Walters's giggly responses right in the
movie, and with occasionally interjecting some transitional footage culled straight from someone's
camera phone. In the midst of the lavish "Money, Money, Money" number, which sinks the
point of the song by demonstrating just how much money is at these women's disposal,
Streep appears in some half-lit Zapruder footage, hoisting a daiquiri glass right at the
camera. I assume she assumed this was part of the "Making of."
But Mamma Mia! is such a ferocious mess that you stop giving the filmmakers any
credit, to include executive producers Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who must really have a
thing for Greek weddings. (Yes, I know, she's Greek.) This
forces me into an uncomfortable conclusion, having spent my entire life since high school doing
what no one in Hollywood trusts us to do deliberately, and scheduling my ticket-purchases
to offer the best-timed assistance to the least protected talent in Hollywoodwhich is to say,
women. I've made sure to see How Stella Got Her Groove Back
and Stepmom and Calendar Girls
and Stephanie Daley and A Thousand Acres
and Marie Antoinette
and Talk to Me on their opening weekends, and to save the blockbusters
for the middle of the week, so that dollars show up in the only column where the studio heads
are looking, which is the only way (I thought) to ensure that women directors and female
stars keep getting headlining work. And I'm thrilled to see a movie by, for, and starring
middle-aged women doing so well at the box-office. But after Sex
and the City and this, and with The Women spewing its aged-Chanel
odor down the hall in the multiplex, I have to confess that attending, much less trumpeting
these movies simply because they keep female talent in steady work is rather like voting for
Sarah Palin just because she buys tampons. Or, you know, like putting lipstick on a pig.
Or a pitbull. It is eminently unclear what is gained from watching as ditzy a property as Mamma Mia!
be safeguarded from the input of actual filmmakers; or from watching Meryl Streep grab
her crotch and growl out unscripted asides so as to verify her well-proven ability to be
"loose" on screen; or from hot-gluing a "plot" around a favorite jewel-box of songs, such
that the meanings of the songs are often abraded by surrounding circumstance, and their
delicate sentiments seem very close to canned.
But the worst tendency of Mamma Mia!, if not the bedrock of the whole piece, is its
evisceration of the very ideals it means to profess: marriage, love, family. Amanda Seyfried
plays a silly girl whose relation to marriage is so ardent and yet so casual that she chases it,
secures it (against the wish of her groom), makes a huge if vague production of it, gets a
whole coterie of nameless Greeks toiling over it, sings about it, shows up for it, and then
tosses it aside, but not before dragging three strangers across the world to attend it under false
and undisclosed pretenses so that she can have a perfect day for...herself. And so that she can
have a "father" she never knew to give her away at the end of the aisle, in an eyelash-dampening
nod to pure, impersonal ritual.
As Whitesnake memorably asked,
is this love? Apparently, since the wedding that does conclude Mamma Mia! is built upon
the same resplendent fabric of misunderstanding, concealment, and non-acquaintance. It
doesn't mean that the audience, like the "peasant" extras on screen, aren't meant to cheer
every development, or that Seyfried doesn't play all of her scenes through a terrifying
knot of squealy enervation, as though she's trying to sprout a second mouth right between
her eyes, to help her scream out the jellied proto-thoughts pupating in her mind.
Mamma Mia! is three parts hammy pantomime, one part old-pro improv, and two parts
ruthless barracking of conformity and self-absorption into a Trojan
Horse of Romance and Spontaneity. The sense of entitlement that drives a protagonist to
make such a broad, tacky, and finally throwaway spectacle of her marriage is the evil but identical
twin of the entitlement that holds an unremarkable pencil-doodle on a napkin as a ticket
straight to art-school (thank goodness the script drops this gimpy thread). The triplet of
both of these is that profound form of entitlement that, for six years, hawks a multimillion-dollar commodity based on someone else's
genius without bringing a dab of formal constraint or seasoned counsel to all the amiable boisterousness.
In fairness, a movie frayed into this many parts inevitably has some good ones. Streep can
hardly be expected to keep up with the script's shoving of her character among so many abrupt
moods and confused motivations, but she clears a glade for a beautiful moment when she
accepts her daughter's much-delayed invitation that she walk her down the aisle.
If Streep is guilty of overdoing a great deal of her performance, and of looking abashed by
how intensely Brosnan keeps trying to Act with her, she's got to be given credit for using
this piece to flex her boundaries, rather than holding herself away from the encroachments
of tastelessness on all sides. Remember 1986, when Streep had ensconced herself
as our most patrician actress, while Madonna was confirming her pop-savant brilliance
with a jubilant reinvention as a true-blue, latter-day Jean Harlow and provocateuse of all trades?
Well, who would have thought that twenty years later
Madonna would be gazing down at us from the Olympus of her own self-satisfaction, making
albums more invested in sonic vanguardism than lyrical sense and emotional accessibility, while Streep glides
so chummily through the culture as the spry hero of college girls (and boys)
as well as their mothers (and fathers?), equal to almost everything and seemingly above nothing.
Mamma Mia! is not what we should remember
her for. It isn't clear that Mamma Mia! must be remembered at all, and I, like almost
everyone, preferred when Streep was pushing wittily against the grain of anti-woman caricature
in the admittedly limited Devil Wears Prada, with a younger
co-star playing an actual person, rather than headlining this chintzy valentine to the
world-shaking ebullience of one's own flimsily "empowered" friendships and one's most
offhanded and tarted-up whims. But give this woman credit, even if we must withhold
credit from all the other, very successful women who are her bosses and collaborators in this
venture, though they forebear from actually directing her even once, despite contractual duty. Streep
survives her ungodly costumes and her own most errant impulses, and she plays someone savvy enough
even in her reckless youth to select three amorous conquests with the last names A(nderson),
B(right), and C(armichael), and to prognosticate in her diary, with truly startling accuracy,
the far-flung addresses these men would inhabit twenty years later when her unborn daughter
would need to contact and manipulate them. Now, that's a woman I can get behind. D+