Film review With an undeveloped plot and little respect for the tunes that define it, Mamma Mia! falls short of its potential.
It's all there in that titular exclamation mark. The craven desperation that surrounds the whole project and screams out, in sparkly flares and zany platform boots, "IT'S Mamma Mia! AND YOU WILL ENJOY THIS MOVIE!" Unfortunately, you may be an Abba lover (and, in truth, who isn't?), but unless your idea of heaven is two hours of an hysterical otherworld, where life is defined by hen nights, bedroom sing-songs and fake camaraderie, then true enjoyment of Mamma Mia! might be a bit of stretch.
Of course, Mamma Mia! The Musical has become a global phenomenon since it arrived on the London stage nearly a decade ago. And why not? There's high concept appeal in the story of a girl on a Greek island who scuppers her own wedding plans by inviting the three dashing middle-aged men who might just be her father. Couple that with serious musical troopers who can belt a slew of stirring Abba tunes up to the rafters and you have a recipe for a stage smash. Film, however, can be far more unforgiving.
For a start, it needs a plot. The tale of the girl, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), in search of her real father is cute, but the movie just drops it out in front of us like a dollop of cold porridge and never once runs with it. Sophie announces, in practically the first frame, that she's inviting to her wedding the three men who dated her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), at the time of her conception; and that's it. Sexy Sam (Pierce Brosnan), wild Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and stuffy Harry (Colin Firth) duly arrive on cue and the movie simply coasts along from there, tempting us only with the question of which man will eventually walk Sophie down the aisle in the inevitable wedding finale.
In the interim we are treated to wall-to-wall Abba tracks, mostly spliced around busy musical montages, as the men, the girls, plus Donna and her two best friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski), get busy dancing around their paradise island (actually several Greek islands, including Skiathos and Corfu) and prepare for the wedding. This wedding obsession may have worked on stage but, again, in a movie it looks crudely cynical, and represents a rom-com staple that has long outlived its welcome (as proved by this year's dismal 27 Dresses).
Elsewhere the gender stereotypes are equally synthetic. The movie peddles a notion of hysterical femininity that turns women into gurning giggling pre-adolescent dolts who joke about boys and boob jobs, and live only to lip-synch. Musicals don't have to be like this. Remember Maria (Julie Andrews) in The Sound of Music? Or the other Maria (Natalie Wood) in West Side Story? Or even Satine (Nicole Kidman) in Moulin Rouge? These were women with complex and layered emotional lives.
Mamma Mia! is all about the music, but even here it mostly runs aground. The director Phyllida Lloyd rightly plasters visual montage over some of the low-key tunes like Honey Honey. But with others, especially the title track, she is simply at a loss (in this case she plonks Streep on the roof of a goat shed, gets her to roll around a bit, and hopes for the best). The actors aren't natural singers, and they bring their own baggage to each role. Each song thus becomes a test of their vocal credibility (Brosnan seems always on the verge of cracking) rather than an intrinsic moment in the movie. And is it wrong to say that Streep, through a strange error in make-up and wardrobe, here looks mostly like a man in drag?
Ultimately, the strangest aspect of Mamma Mia! is how little it respects the tunes that define it. It refuses to play them out directly on camera without cuts (as they would've played on stage). When it finally gets the point, near the end, with Streep's simple, static, yet genuinely moving rendition of The Winner Takes It All, it hints at the deep emotion it could have mined, and the movie it could have been all along.