ABBA, the songsters behind the soundtrack for the musical MAMA MIA!, play and now film, composed bouncy little ditties often revolving around a catch phrase or even just a catch word. Add safe, bubble-gum music and the results were songs that weren’t so much great art as something that would burrow into the listener’s brain with all the ferocity of a determined earwig and that were just as impossible to remove. Once heard, they remained forever, sometimes replaying themselves whether the listener wanted them to or not. Sales were enormous, such that ABBA became the second biggest Swedish export, right behind Volvo. The play, based on the songs, which toured seemingly forever, did quite well financially, and so it was just a matter of time before it made it to the big screen. And it is there that those bouncy little tunes, that are pushing it when it comes to carrying two- or three-minutes of radio airtime, are revealed to be painfully less than adequate to carry a 108 minutes of screen time.
The tissue-thin story has Sophie (bright-eyed and sparkling Amanda Seyfried) about to be married to the fetching Sky (Dominic Cooper) and, at the same time, about to discover who her father is. She hopes. Her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), former free-spirit and current owner of a crumbling hotel on a Greek island, had three romances the fateful summer of Sophie’s conception, detailed, but not too detailed, in the diary that Donna hid, but that Sophie found. There’s Sam (Pierce Brosnan), the American who became an architect, Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), the Swede who became a travel writer, and Harry (Colin Firth), the headbanger who became a stuffy banker. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie invites all three to her wedding, and unbeknownst to the three, they are about to discover their putative fatherhood. Fortunately, when Donna comes face-to-face with her reckless past, she has old pals Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) to get her through it with renditions of “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen”.
Streep proves herself again to be perhaps the finest actor of her generation, or any other for that matter, by actually finding the human element in this great plastic fabrication, and then by playing it with a straight-faced conviction that is heart-melting. Firth, cute as a well-groomed poodle, is perfectly delightful struggling with more than his loss of spontaneity, while Brosnan still has the tall, dark, and handsome stuff when it comes to sparking the soul of romance on screen bravely makes do with a voice that was made to sing in the shower, but nowhere else. It’s Skarsgard who is off-putting in that he never quite stops looking as though he has just awoken from a sound but not restful sleep. As for Baranksi, she is playing the same over-groomed, high-strung character she developed so brilliantly on television’s “Cybill” a dozen or so years ago. Walters does broad schtick, but does it very, very well until the time comes for her to suddenly become man-hungry, when things just become uncomfortable to watch.
The cast does its own singing and it’s an uneven effort, and while Streep and Syfried are fine, the best I can say about that is that none of the rest of them are as bad as the singing done by either Lee Marvin or Clint Eastwood in PAINT YOUR WAGON. And, no, that isn’t saying much. The true disaster is the choreography, which is clunky, pedestrian, and morose such that not even such editing tactics as quick-cuts and motion-effects can breathe any life into it. As for grafting pop-lite hits onto a storyline, it is an uneven effort, with songs like “The Winner Takes It All” not quite fitting the mood of final confrontation between Donna and Sam, though the actors involved are obviously giving it their all dramatically. The non-singing bits range from cute to completely random, with emotional outbursts bubbling forth with so little set-up or provocation that a lingering case of cognitive disconnect comes to mind as the ultimate cause.
MAMA MIA! is like cotton candy. Unsubstantial, brightly colored, way too sweet, and ultimately unsatisfying in any meaningful way. Plus it might just make you just a little nauseous.