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A TALE TOLD BY AN ABBA FAN, FULL OF SONGS AND JUMPING, SIGNIFYING A NEW LOW IN MOVIE MUSICALS

 

picture - Mamma Mia!Movie Review

by John Topping

published July 18, 2008

 

Mamma Mia!

rated PG-13

now playing nationwide

 

If you’re thinking of seeing Mamma Mia! this weekend, the decision you make might be largely based on your genitalia; word has it that your perceived merit of this film will be similarly based.  I think – make that hope and pray – that the actual division of camps of who does and doesn’t like the movie will depend primarily on which side of the high school diploma you stand.  Die-hard fans of the Swedish band ABBA can be forgiven for any blindness to its badness (the entire film revolves around their hits).  And it appears to be downright impossible to make a movie so bad that no one at all will like it.  But it will be a sad statement on popular culture – or perhaps only on woman, since it is a so-called “chick flick” – if this nauseatingly empty time-waster is triumphantly embraced.  However, if you are a “glass is 1/10 full” rather than a “glass is 9/10 empty” kind of person, let us now devote this paragraph to naming all the positive things that can be said about Mamma Mia!

 

picture - Mamma Mia!Okay, moving on.  HA! – just kidding.  Here’s the good stuff: (1)  MM! is very pretty to look at.  The cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is gorgeous, and I can’t think of another film that comes closer to showcasing the beauty and colors of Greece (more sadly, it is sure to create a huge surge of tourism there, and the island on which it was shot, formerly known simply as “Skopelos,” will now forever be known as “Skepolos, the Greek island where Mamma Mia! was shot”);  (2) I am not a fan of the music of ABBA, but I am a fan of four of their songs,* and now I can finally say that I’ve heard the rest of the songs on my ABBA Gold CD; and (3) refreshingly, it is mostly older people who are the objects of desire and the feelers of sexual feelings.  That’s rare for any film without it being the butt of a joke. 

 

Well, that pretty much wraps up the good stuff.  (Not kidding.)

 

Of course, this is all subjective, and what looks like little more than an exercise in embarrassment to me might be a cause for celebration for you.  This is especially true if you like jumping – or, more precisely, to watch other people jump.  Fans of jump-watching should drop everything and head immediately to the theater, for you shall not be disappointed.  There’s jumping into frame and out of frame and within the frame (not to mention in and out of the plot).  Heads popping out from behind doors and below ledges also have a strong presence, as does mugging, oh-so-surprised funny-face reaction shots and countless modest moments that are stretched beyond capacity in order to fill screen time (those pesky songs demand it).  A complete list of the uninteresting inanity that is dreamed up for the sake of creating onscreen movement – any onscreen movement – would take as much time to read as it would to watch the film, for that is pretty much all it is.

 

picture - Mamma Mia!The story that was invented to have reasons to sing the ABBA songs – and which was borrowed from the 1968 movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell** – concerns Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), a 20 year old fiancé who invites three men who shagged her mother one summer to attend the wedding.  One of them is her father, but she doesn’t know which one; nor do they; nor does her mother (Meryl Streep).  In fact, Mamma Meryl doesn’t even know the old flames are coming.  When she finds out, she is excited beyond belief and launches into the title song with uncontained enthusiasm (Mamma Mia! / Here I go again / My my / How can I resist him?), all giddy with smiles and climbing ladders and peeking around corners (and, of course, jumping); then, when the song ends and they’re all face to face, she immediately changes to scowls and unharnessed anger and tells the whole lot to leave immediately, and sister, she ain’t just playing hard-to-get.  It takes the entire movie for all of the characters to know what takes less than 30 seconds for the audience to be told, and you may find yourself surprised to think, “You mean Potential Father # 2 is only just now realizing that Sophie might be his daughter?”  (Additional examples abound; the characters, as drawn by Catherine Johnson, from her own book of the stage musical, are a bit slow on the uptake.)

 

With notable exceptions, Meryl Streep, rather amazingly, manages to emerge mostly unscathed from this disaster of direction (by Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed the stage version).  Streep maintains reality in both ordinary (if vacuous) dialogue as well as when she sings; particularly impressive is her acting while singing “The Winner Takes It All.”  But it is simultaneously aggravating that Streep, who could have given us more musicals through her career, has dumped this particular “gift” into our laps.  Maybe-Daddy Pierce Brosnan, who is not a professional-league singer, sings quite a bit in MM!  I actually enjoy it when non-singers are given the chance to sing, as in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You; but Brosnan stands out like a sore thumb being the only performer who is blatantly having a problem hitting the notes.  But, boy, is he game, and it’s hard not to admire his courage when he is certain to be ridiculed for this stunt (although fate could turn him into the newest not-so-gifted singing sensation, a la William Shatner, if he really wants to go there). 

 

picture - Mamma Mia!The other two Maybe-Daddies – Stellan Skarsgård, usually either shirtless or shirt unbuttoned, revealing a perfectly-tanned and sexy older man’s body (though the only available press stills are with his shirt on); and Colin Firth, who is always a bit charmingly discombobulated – are the most appealing presences.  Rounding out the star-studded cast, and providing what I think is supposed to be comic relief, are Meryl’s pals, played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski.  In order to work in the song “Take A Chance On Me,” Walters has a last-minute crush on one of the M-Ds, who is just as surprised as the rest of us at this unexpected turn of events.  And omigod, it’s SO funny when she chases him around the banquet table on all fours (important note: it’s not really so funny; in fact, crawling on all fours rarely gets the chuckle it’s after in any medium, yet they keep on trying).

 

Heads up!  One of the characters turns out to be gay.  However, since this is a family film in addition to being a chick flick, the gay stuff is designed to be elusive to children, homophobes, and the generally uninformed.  Now don’t feel bad if you’re none of the above and still miss it.  I almost missed it myself, but had just enough gaydar to pick up on it at the last possible second.  (Me [thinks]: “Oh, that guy really is gay?  I thought that [another character] only mistakenly thought he was gay.  Now [a particular plot point] makes sense.”)

 

picture - Mamma Mia!So what is it that makes a movie a “chick flick” anyway?  I always thought it simply meant that it had more appeal to women than to men.  But I’ve been told lately that the even deeper meaning is that it empowers women.  So now that women of all ages have been blessed with a movie they can call their own, which is as tedious and unimaginative as a typical summer release aimed at males in the 12-24 year old demographic, do they feel satisfactorily empowered?  If this is the litmus test, then feminist empowerment has further to go than I’d ever imagined.

 

johntopping @ stageandcinema.com

 

*For the record, the four ABBA songs I like are “S.O.S.,” “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance On Me” (after many years of resistance) and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”  For anyone wondering why “Afternoon Delight” didn’t make the list, the reason is because that song is by the Starland Vocal Band.

 

**Thanks to Harvey Perr for identical plot recognition.

 

 
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