Mamma Mia!
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).

Photo © 2008 Universal Pictures/Playtone
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 Hollywood—which 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. Grade: D+

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Meryl Streep

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