Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: Mamma Mia! (2008)

Mamma Mia!
105 minutes
rated PG-13 (for some sex-related comments)

by Scott Mendelson

Mamma Mia! is an unapologetically goofy musical, wearing its over-the-top absurdity as a badge of honor. Its plot is paper-thin and only a few characters have any real depth, but it is a great performance piece. It is also refreshing in that it is the rare screen musical, like Sweeney Todd, whose original stage source material isn’t specifically about performing. There are no shows to put on, no sock-hop TV shows to try out for, no Motown groups to reunite, and no great songs to write before death. And, like Hairspray and Sweeney Todd, there are no gimmicks to disguise its musical numbers. There are no ‘oh, they’re really all on stage right now’ or ‘oh, it’s all just in Roxie’s imagination’. This is a pleasantly simple domestic comedy where the characters occasionally burst out into song. And, since the story takes place on a small Greek island, they are often accompanied by a literal Greek chorus. And, when everyone is singing and everyone is dancing, Mamma Mia! literally rocks, and rocks hard.

The plot: Sophie is getting married tomorrow. Sophie desperately wants to be walked down the aisle by her real father. After reading her mother’s diary, she’s narrowed it down to three men who romanced Donna right around the time she was conceived. And since she isn’t sure which of the three it is, she’s decided to invite all three. Hilarity, drama, and outlandish musical melodrama inevitably ensues.
As the fans of this long-running and beloved stage show already know, all of the songs performed are actually existing pop-hits from the 1970s Swedish group, ABBA. Amazingly, these disparate songs (‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Take A Chance On Me’, ‘SOS’, etc) come together to form a coherent and somewhat logical narrative, although the dialogue scenes do most of the heavy-lifting in the plot area.

Not everything works flawlessly, though. Some of the songs just don’t zing (‘Money Money Money’ is a song I just don’t like, be it here or on a ABBA greatest hits CD). Furthermore, the somewhat madcap behavior that likely feels more natural on stage comes off as stagey onscreen (this is most evident in Meryl Streep’s pratfall-ish dancing for the title track). But, for the most part, the film succeeds when and where it needs to and truly finds its emotional footing by the first third. Yes, a few songs are cut from the original show, and several are shortened, but it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation (it doesn’t gut the entire second act for expediency, like Rent).

The acting is splendid across the board, as expected. Meryl Streep has a blast as Donna, and it’s such a winning, joyful performance that she may end up with an Oscar nod purely by force of habit. All three alleged fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colin Firth) have great fun with the madcap plot and the opportunity to belt a few bars here and there. Brosnan’s singing is a bit shocking in its vocal quality and its sheer go-for-it gusto. It’s not bad (he’s no Gerald Butler) but it takes some getting used to and it may prove to be divisive (I liked it, my wife did not). It doesn’t help that much of his onscreen crooning is filmed in close-up, so his exaggerated mouth movements are all the more apparent. Everyone else (Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic Sky, etc.) is splendidly game.

Special note must be made of the young lady who would be Sophie. After four years of slowly moving up the ranks, with notable supporting work in Mean Girls, Veronica Mars, and Big Love (and TV guest-spots galore), Amanda Seyfried finally graduates to leading-lady status as the bride-to-be. And she’s never been better (or looked lovelier). She is a terrific singer, she gives a completely engaging dramatic performance, and she has real chemistry with her mother, her fiancee, and all three of her would-be fathers. This is a truly star-making performance.
Mamma Mia! just plain works. It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s family friendly (the PG-13 rating is a joke), and it’ll send you out of the theater tapping your toes and humming your new favorite ABBA song. If you liked the show, or if you like musicals in general, this one will more than fit the bill. It’s not the near masterpiece that Hairspray was, but it’s a smaller, more intimate story that operates on a different emotional level. It’s a more faithful adaptation than Rent, and it’s a plain better movie than Phantom of The Opera, or… shudder, The Producers. In fact, minor quibbles aside, it’s one of the most enjoyable movies of the summer.

grade: B

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