Imagine if James Bong burst into song while pummeling the bad guys; or if Sophie’s Choice was a musical. Picture that and you’ll get how surreal it is to see Pierce Brosnan and fourteen time Oscar nominee (and two time winner) Meryl Streep prancing about a Greek Island singing the songs of 70s pop group ABBA.
Mama Mia! (their exclamation mark, not mine), the big screen adaptation of the wildly popular Broadway musical—apparently 30,000 people worldwide take in the stage show every single day—is a strange spectacle so unrelentingly sunny in its outlook viewers should take some heavy duty SPF 85 to the theater to prevent sunstroke.
In the film Donna (Streep) is a free spirited owner of a rundown B&B on the Greek Mediterranean on the alleged site of Aphrodite’s fountain of love. Twenty years previous she had summer romances with a trio of men—businessman Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), the uptight Harry Bright (Colin Firth) and slacker Bill (Stellan Skarsgard)—one of whom is the father of her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried).
After Sophie reads her Mom’s tell-all diary she realizes she has three possible fathers and becomes obsessed with finding the right man to walk her down the aisle at her upcoming wedding to Sky (Dominic Cooper). Unbeknownst to her mother, she forges invitations in Donna’s name to all three men. When the three arrive on the island, unaware of each other or Sophie’s existence, they spend the next twenty-four hours rekindling old romances, starting new ones and randomly bursting into song. Of course, Sophie’s choice is to decide which of these men is her real dad.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who helmed the original stage show, Mama Mia! is a light and frothy confection that feels like a mix of High School Musical and Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 circa 1976. The silly story is buoyed by chart toppers by ABBA like I Have a Dream, Money, Money, Money and the title track but is let down by the director who fails to take advantage of the film’s beautiful island location with it’s crystal blue water, palm trees and clear skies. Instead she chooses to shoot the movie as though she was mounting a stage show. Maybe a better director—maybe, Julie Taymor’s Mama Mia!—could have opened this up some and made it more visually exciting.
That’s a picky little point though when there is so much else going on. Despite its idyllic vacation setting this is a movie that doesn’t know how to relax. If Meryl Streep isn’t dancing, she’s singing, if she isn’t singing she doing physical comedy. Ditto for the rest of the cast. As they say, if everyday was Christmas you wouldn’t appreciate it as much and the same is true at the movies when every second of a film is jammed with stimulus.
The unyielding pace mars the first hour of the film, cramming in too many songs, too many pratfalls and too much exposition. What probably works very well on stage with real actors loses some of its oomph when translated to the screen, although the abandon of the film’s Dancing Queen number is infectious and was probably a showstopper on the boards as it is in the movie.
It pays off, though, in the last half hour when, despite myself, I began to tap my foot to the songs and give in to the film’s cheery charms. The songs bring back a nostalgia for a simpler time when pop music was more fun than it is today—there isn’t a hint of gansta rap or emo in Mama Mia!—and the audience I saw it with were clapping and singing along with each musical number.
Mama Mia! starts off fluffy as Cool Whip on Jello, but develops a wistful feel in the last thirty minutes as the relationship between Sophie and her mother and three dads deepens. This is largely due to the performance of Meryl Streep.
Anyone who only regards Streep as a capital “S” serious actress may have to revise their opinion after seeing her play air guitar, sing to a fish or do a bang-on Celine Dion impression in The Winner Takes it All.
A project like Mama Mia! is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the films that made her famous, and even though this is likely part of her Robert De Niro Retirement Plan—she seems to have reached the juncture in her career where she leaves the interesting roles behind and takes only high ticket jobs—she commits completely and hands in a vibrant, energetic performance that is the emotional core of the movie.
I wish I could say the same thing about Pierce Brosnan. He’s fine in the film until he opens his mouth to sing. His vocal performance on S.O.S. is the kind of singing that people generally do when they think no one is listening and puts to rest the myth that all Irish people can sing.
Mama Mia! is a crowd pleasing confection that, for better or worse, will have you humming Dancing Queen as you exit the theater.