'Mamma Mia!': Gotta Love It, Like It or Not

Meryl Streep, as Donna, is mother to a 20-year-old bride and is ready to break into song, Greek chorus or no.
Meryl Streep, as Donna, is mother to a 20-year-old bride and is ready to break into song, Greek chorus or no. (By Peter Mountain -- Universal Pictures)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

The brassy, bawdy musical "Mamma Mia!" presents itself as a piece of clever counterprogramming to this summer's surfeit of pounding, effects-driven comic-book movies. What could provide a better antidote to a "Dark Knight" than the cinematic equivalent of the world's sunniest day? But filmgoers eager to sample "Mamma Mia's" sun-kissed, synth-pop pleasures are likely to feel just as bludgeoned, in this case by an Abba-bomb, wrapped in a huge turquoise-colored feather boa.

This is a movie guaranteed to please crowds, if only because it insists on their affection so strenuously.

Meryl Streep plays Donna Sheridan, the owner of a little hotel on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, where her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is about to get married. Unbeknownst to the once-roundheeled Donna, Sophie has invited three men to the wedding who might or might not be her birth father, each of them having had a romantic liaison with her mom in the late 1970s. So in short order, a yacht is crossing the Aegean carrying its slightly bemused passengers: Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgard), Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan) and Harry Bright (Colin Firth). Meanwhile, for symmetry's sake, Donna has welcomed to the inn two old friends and erstwhile band mates: a wisecracking cookbook writer named Rosie (Julie Walters) and the Botoxed-and-buffed cougar-in-silk Tanya (Christine Baranski).

By the time the players are in place, a weird sense of dissonance has set in: Not to put too fine (or ageist) a point on it, but Streep & Co. seem too old to play characters who were so footloose and feckless a mere 20 years ago. With the characters' references to hippies, summers of love and flower power, all the while wearing punk-rock T-shirts and singing anodyne pop songs that were ironic before they were iconic, "Mamma Mia!" never seems to get a handle on its eras.

What's more, director Phyllida Lloyd doesn't seem to have made singing ability a criterion for casting the film, which is based on the long-running stage hit of the same name. Streep has already proved to have a sweet singing voice in such films as "Postcards From the Edge" and "A Prairie Home Companion," but her range seems ill-suited for the lush, synthesized stylings of Abba; even worse, her primary leading man, Brosnan, comes forth with a dusty, adenoidal baritone completely at odds with the songs' famously poppy brightness. Their four supporting players often look painfully at sea (sometimes literally, as "Mamma Mia!" relies on more than one sight gag of someone jumping, falling or belly-flopping into the water). Firth looks particularly ill at ease, while Walters suffers the greatest choreographic indignities exploiting every old-lady-on-the-make cliche in the book.

Loud, forced, occasionally crotch-grabbingly crude, "Mamma Mia!" is so fueled by the shrieking-banshee vibe of a drunken hen party that it makes the cafe confabs of "Sex and the City" girls look like a meeting of the Ms. editorial board. With Lloyd resolving every scene by raising the pitch ever more hysterically, "Mamma Mia!" quickly goes from being a sun-splashed, slightly kitschy piece of escapist fluff to an all-out assault. Message: You will have fun. Or else.

Filmed on location in Greece and in a British studio, "Mamma Mia!" never gracefully bridges the gap between realism and artifice that all movie musicals must navigate. That bridge was crossed flawlessly by the masterpiece "Singin' in the Rain"; Baz Luhrman responded by ratcheting up the extravagance in "Moulin Rouge," whereas last year's "Once" created a sense of entirely organic spontaneity, with equally ingenious results. "Mamma Mia!," on the other hand, never quite finds its aesthetic footing, with its artifice awkwardly executed and its attempts at realism looking consistently fake. (Nowhere is this more evident than in the lighting, which seems to surround everyone with an incandescent nimbus of unknown origin.)

As frenetic and unhinged as "Mamma Mia!" is (Lloyd has never met a dance sequence she didn't feel compelled to chop up into a million tiny pieces), it offers pleasures that only a churl would deny. Streep, as miscast as she is, remains a wonderment, here gamely throwing vanity to the Aeolian wind and belting, bouncing and otherwise bullying her way to another winning performance. She has two genuinely affecting moments here: a production number of "Dancing Queen" (one of Abba's most universally loved songs) that travels from the inn to the harbor below, picking up a fabulous Greek chorus of local women as it builds, and the tender "Slipping Through My Fingers," which no mother (or father) of a daughter can possibly watch without crying, period.

But those rare authentic moments seem at odds with the film's worship of all things synthetic, from the music itself to the contrivance the movie so heavily relies on and, finally, represents. (Building a plausible story around a bunch of Abba songs couldn't have been easy, and it shows.) As difficult as it is to resist the film's insidiously powerful pull -- hey, even churls just want to have fun -- viewers might feel upon leaving the theater as though they've just had that turquoise-colored feather boa wrapped ever tighter around their necks.

Mamma Mia! (103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments.

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