Just buying the tickets to this film felt like a guilty pleasure. What could be more cheesy than a movie musical with serious actors like Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard — based on the songs of ABBA? I practically had to drag the First Mate to the theater, but when the end credits rolled, she was sold on Mamma Mia!, and so was I.
How does one go about writing a plot that would allow ABBA’s famously frothy music to support a libretto? It’s simple: make it as complex as possible and play it broadly. Sophie, a young bride-to-be, wants to have her father give her away at her wedding, but has a problem: she has no idea who it might be. The three possible candidates, none of whom have seen her mother Donna for 21 years, all respond to Sophie’s wedding invitation, and well … hilarity ensues. Harry, Sam, and Bill all show up, and Donna has to come to terms with her past.
It’s not Shakespeare — well, it sounds a little Shakespearian, but I’m pretty sure the Bard of Avon didn’t have his actors singing “SOS” and “Dancing Queen”, and probably avoided penis jokes. Too bad, though, because it mostly worked. Mamma Mia! doesn’t take itself too seriously and its energy and its songs are infectious. ABBA fans, as I was, will remember the songs, with slight changes to lyrics assisting the storytelling, and it has a few very touching moments, especially with “Slipping Through My Fingers,” one of ABBA’s best-written songs, and “Our Last Summer”.
The cast sings the songs themselves, and that also works … mostly. For those who watched Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge, her amazing vocals will not surprise, but for many it will be a revelation. Being the star, she can’t actually steal the movie, but Streep makes it clear that no one else will. Amanda Seyfried (“Big Love”) makes the most from Sophie, giving a star turn as ingenue. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are hilarious as Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s best friends and former back-up singers, and they sing surprisingly well. Baranski has a great time with “Does Your Mother Know” while reversing the song’s May-December orientation.
The men don’t do as well with the singing, but deliver good performances otherwise. Brosnan has already taken heat for his vocals, which very quickly get out of his depth; Firth gets off easier with a lighter turn in “Our Last Summer”, and Skarsgard only chips in with a throwaway part in the final “Take a Chance On Me”. Give them all high marks for courage, anyway.
Not everything works in this movie. “The Winner Takes It All” doesn’t make sense, either lyrically or in its staging, and should have been cut. A few moments veer dangerously close to camp, and some of the dancing numbers look ragged at the edges. Really, though, Mamma Mia! isn’t a movie to be taken seriously anyway — it’s some escapist fun with great actors, beautiful scenery, and bubbly-fun music.
It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s fun, and it’s a fine diversion for a Sunday afternoon.
Update: I fixed the typo, but really, I had to drag the First Mate down to the theater. In fact, my best friend lives down the street from me and we both loved ABBA back in high school — and she suggested I take him instead. He and his wife joined the two of us for the movie, in the end.