I always found ABBA’s melancholy ballads more interesting than their better-known disco-influenced hits, but I find those latter songs pleasant enough in small doses.
String a bunch of the 1970s Swedish pop band’s upbeat numbers together, though, and I start to lose the feeling in my extremities, like when I drink too much soda. No surprise, then, that my fingers and toes started going numb during Mamma Mia!, a musical built on ABBA’s hit confections such as “Dancing Queen” and “Chiquitita.” The joke is, everything else about this movie is so weak that I wound up closing my eyes and waiting impatiently for the music to start up again.
The movie takes its flimsy plot from the popular and long-running stage musical that it’s based on. It’s about a 20-year-old American named Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) who helps her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) run a picturesque but ramshackle resort hotel on a Greek island. Sophie’s impending marriage makes her keen to learn the identity of her biological father, a piece of information that Donna has never divulged. After finding her mom’s diary, Sophie invites three men who might be her dad (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård) to the wedding to try to find out for herself.
The big mistake here was giving the project over to Phyllida Lloyd, a theatrical director who handled the stage version of the show but had never made a movie before. Her inexperience is all too clear. Her editing and composition don’t enhance the dance numbers (and Anthony van Laast’s amateur-hour choreography needs all the help it can get), the transitions between dialogue and music are clumsy, and even though the movie actually was filmed on a Greek island, the nondeDELETE visuals give no sense of atmosphere. The numbers lie flat onscreen, which is no small achievement given the songs’ energy.
To make matters worse, none of the men can carry a tune, and Brosnan’s rasp is particularly rough on the ears when he sings “S.O.S.” On the other hand, Streep is a fine singer, but her performance comes out shrill and effortful because she’s so hellbent on showing us what a fun person she is. There’s no such strain on Seyfried, the doll-faced actress from TV’s Big Love, and with her fresh soprano voice let loose on “I Have a Dream” and “Lay All Your Love on Me,” she’s the one performer who emerges from this movie more or less unscathed.
The film has a few other happy accidents, like the version of “Waterloo” over the end credits – of the movie’s many bits of intentional silliness, this is the one that actually comes off. Streep’s rendition of “Slipping Through My Fingers” is a nice moment, too, though its understated charm only highlights the fake high spirits of the rest of the movie.
As powerful as great musicals are, bad musicals are often worse than other types of bad movies because they tend to force their good cheer on you until you’re thoroughly depressed. Mamma Mia! made me want to move someplace where I’d never see the sun again and play death metal music all day long.
Starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Written by Catherine Johnson, based on her own musical. Rated PG-13.