Meryl Streep as Donna
Pierce Brosnan as Sam Carmichael
Amanda Seyfried as Sophie
Stellan Skarsgård as Bill
Colin Firth as Harry Bright
Julie Walters as Rosie
Christine Baranski as Tanya
Dominic Cooper as Sky
Rachel McDowall as Lisa
Ashley Lilley as Ali
How much you like it is going to depend very much on how high a tolerance for ABBA you have, however a truly charismatic and engaging cast makes “Mamma Mia!” much easier to swallow than it has any right to be. The sight of Meryl Streep on platform shoes singing “Dancing Queen” really does have to be seen to be believed.
In the sense of fairness, I have to confess, I’ve never much cared for ABBA. They’re the pop music equivalent of a beige Austin Princess being driven by a shag carpet, ridiculous but still boring and out of date. However, if you do like ABBA you’re one up on the rest of us and “Mamma Mia!” could be right up your alley, assuming you don’t mind your songs being sung in a wide range of ability.
Since it is a very, very, poppy musical, it’s been very wisely targeted at a mostly pre-teen/teenage girl audience. Young Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is on the verge of having the wedding of her dreams (it helps that her mother owns a seaside hotel in the Grecian Archipelago). The only thing stopping her is that she doesn’t have a father to walk her down the aisle, his identity being one of her mother’s (Meryl Streep) most guarded secrets. She’s narrowed it down to three possible choices architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan); banker Harry (Colin Firth); and travel writer Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and she’s secretly invited all of them to the wedding without telling anyone why. Hijinks ensue.
Because it’s a teen girl fantasy it’s generally got all the depth of a wading pool. Almost everyone has fabulous jobs or lives in fabulous places (or both) so they can ignore the perils of the real world and focus on what’s really important; fulfilling personal fantasies. Which is fair enough, it’s a fairy tale after all. It wouldn’t be escapist if the real world butted into it too much or at all. But it does make for a fairly flimsy story. Most musicals get by with that because, like their polar opposite the action film, they’re stories are just props for the song and dance routines. Unfortunately, these are song and dance routines based on ABBA, which could be a problem for most of us.
However, one of the things plays and films can fall back on that other forms of storytelling can’t is its cast. A good actor can instill even the blandest, most insipid of material with meaning and nuance its writers couldn’t possibly have imagined. By accident or design (I lean towards accident) first time feature director Phyllidia Lloyd has gotten a very good cast indeed for Donna and her suitors. If “Mamma Mia!” proves anything it’s that Meryl Streep actually can do anything. It’s also quite refreshing to see a film (and a pop music fairy tale no less) that takes the time to look beyond the love lives of twenty-something’s and deal with some of the more complicated emotional entanglements of older characters.
It goes without saying that everything the adults do is miles more interesting than the kids. It’s unfortunate that the movie is split so evenly among them, veering back and forth between Donna’s mature regret over the past and Sophie’s youthful apprehension about the future. The thematic contrast makes sense and there’s been some actual thought put into it, but in execution half of it is just an excuse to go to the bathroom or get more popcorn.
But the other half is generally worth watching, even if it means you have to put with the ABBA, as Donna agonizes over the lost love of her life and whether or not its worth the danger of rekindling. Streep and Brosnan get the heaviest bit of the load to life and they’re both more than up to it, although Brosnan’s singing abilities are little suspect. It’s too bad that Firth, and especially Skarsgård are relegated to the back after a promising introduction. The few scenes with all of them are the best reasons to watch the film, and make up for the skreechiness of Donna’s best friends (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski), who seem to forget that they’re not on stage and don’t have to play to the rafters.
Yeah, it’s all a little bit on the camp side. It’s a musical based on the songs of ABBA. A little bit camp is probably the height of restraint. But considering how rare it is that Hollywood ever admits to the existence of anyone over 40, there actually is some good stuff to get out of “Mamma Mia!” You just have to sit through a lot of bad music to get to it.