The ABBA musical Mamma Mia! shouldn’t work. Most of it—in fact—doesn’t. With one exception, which I shall get to eventually, the handful of moments that go beguilingly right, and they are here, feel as if they were the by-products of happy accidents, rather than of any cohesive design. And sometimes, there are moments so spectacularly ill-conceived that the song-and-dance stagings accrue a perverse fascination. When Julie Walters, who has been given a grossly unflattering butch haircut and a deforming pair of hipster eye frames to match (she’s made to resemble one of those incredibly smug urban women who fancy themselves sexually alluring just because they’ve achieved financial solvency late in life), and who has apparently been instructed by the director Phyllida Lloyd to forget everything she ever knew about comic timing, begins to sing, “Take a Chance on Me,” you can’t fathom anyone taking a chance on her.
Lloyd was right to have Walters talk through the first few lines of the song, almost whispering them, as she timidly proffers herself to Stellan Skarsgård. But the choreography calls for Walters to promenade down the length of a white-clothed tabletop (I wouldn’t quite call what she does “dancing”) as she belts out the lyrics. Walters is supposed to be playing a cookbook author, though we never see this diminutive dragon lady cook or hear her talk about recipes. Likewise, when Skarsgård announces, late in the film, “I’m a writer. I’m a lone wolf,” that’s the first intimation of what his character does for a living. There’s no chemistry (or is that the point?) between these two, so that Walters throwing herself at him cannot help but come across as grotesque. When she and Christine Baranski, as bickering best pals, make their entrance at the start at the film, I assumed they were intended to be lesbians. It’s also the height of arrogance for Walters to come on to a man with, “If you change your mind, I’ll be first in line,” but never mind that: in her Mamma Mia! get-up, Walters could more plausibly snag the winner of a Gertrude Stein look-alike contest than thrive in this movie’s forced heterosexuality.
That said, Lloyd and the screenwriter Catherine Johnson can’t make homosexuality believable either. There’s an unintentionally sublime moment in a chapel, near the end, when Colin Firth, as Harry Bright, one of Meryl Streep’s three estranged ex-boyfriends, announces before the wedding congregation that Streep’s Donna was, “The first girl I ever loved, and the last girl I ever loved.” A couple of men in the church, seated aisles apart, cross themselves. At first, I thought these good Greek Catholics were crossing themselves because they, too, had loved women they didn’t marry, or had married women they didn’t love. However, Johnson and Lloyd mean this as Harry’s declaration of being gay, in which case there’s absolutely nothing ruefully insightful about the scene at all. A quarter of a century ago when he was slimmer and less inclined to go along for the ride, Firth possibly might have rendered this trumped-up conversion marginally convincing. Not so here.
The first half-hour of Mamma Mia! is so dreadful it suggests an elephantine equivalent of a stoner comedy. The jokes aren’t funny, or even recognizable as jokes (Baranski lifting a towel from a basket and reacting in horror at the open-mouthed fish inside it, or Baranski stumbling about the pier in her white high heels—slapstick isn’t her métier; the hideous, low-cut, sleeveless, tropical watercolor frocks Ann Roth designed for her are similarly unsuitable), and the first two musical numbers range from flat (“Honey, Honey”) to enervated (“Money, Money, Money”). The “Money” production, in which Streep, who lives in a gorgeous setting on a rustic island off the coast of Greece, seems particularly redolent of a marijuana-induced haze. Why would someone who lives in a kind of paradise have glowing fantasies about riding around on a yacht? Surely, she has water access enough as is. Streep’s Donna, quaintly clad in straw hat and blue overalls, isn’t exactly suffering out there, running her inn, with dozens of dancing servants to manage the work for her. It takes a certain level of poshlost to devise a story to wrap around songs that are already (most of them) well established, as opposed to writing songs that grow organically out of a story. What Mamma Mia! must have represented on stage, and definitely represents on screen, is the laziest wish fulfillment bad taste imaginable, a sort of grand-scale paint by numbers kit. Whether it was actually sprung from such a source or not, the very premise of structuring a musical this way implies a sensibility shaped by the contours of divorce courts, Harlequin romance novels, and airport lounges.
Now—brace yourself—some of this trash turns out to be affecting. Although the “Dancing Queen” sequence begins as poorly as its predecessors (it’s at its most desperately bad when Streep jumps up and down on her bed in slightly slowed down motion), once the action moves outdoors, the dance expands to include every woman in this picturesque island village, and it becomes—I kid you not—a joyful communal experience. (Earlier this week, a friend berated me for walking out on Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra after the first 25 minutes, and I can sense his eyes rolling as I type this.) One by one, the working women abandon their chores to romp with Streep, Baranski, and Walters through the woods; when a weathered old laborer carrying a bundle of sticks over her head spies them, something inside her responds to the siren call of the 17-year-old girl who lives within. This beautifully pantomimed bit—she tosses her bundle to the ground and joins them—feels entirely spontaneous. Lloyd earns it.
Later, there’s a charming chorus line of male dancers shuffling in flippers on a pier; Lloyd, who had never before directed a theatrical film, doesn’t skimp on wide-angle shots. She gives us the dancers from top to toe, against the exhilarating backdrops of Skopelos and Skiathos. After a while, even a set-up that isn’t quite as much fun as hoped—such as Streep, Walters, and Baranski donning blue glitter platform shoes and mermaid-colored sequined gowns to croon ABBA songs at a bachelorette party—has a spell-casting gaudiness that’s all but impossible to resist.
Where Mamma Mia! stays consistently wrong lies in the hollow non-performance by Amanda Seyfried as Sophie, Donna’s daughter. With her peach cobbler complexion and cascading mane of curls evocative of blonde seaweed, Seyfried matches up to Streep coloristically, yet in no other way. Seyfried has a vacuous, mealy vocal instrument. She sounds a bit like Christina Ricci, minus Ricci’s complexity. Sophie’s wide-eyed smiles and inexorable self-confidence have nothing behind them. A more seasoned filmmaker would have sent this sickening girl packing and cast a real actress in the part. Then again, Lloyd’s touch is so scattershot that she can’t even draw good work out of Baranski. I’d never seen Baranski bad until this, but Johnson’s script doesn’t give her anything to go on, and a performer can only be so resourceful. Baranski hasn’t yet had a film role that allows her to go tripping as gaily as she did in her all-out reading of Thomas Meehan’s “Yma Dream” on Selected Shorts. Someone needs to give her a visual equivalent to those rapid-fire “Yma-Ava’s” and “Uta-Aga-Ugo’s.” For a couple of minutes, at least, in The Birdcage, she and Robin Williams seemed to be ideal comic foils for each other; the lived-in ease with which the two fall into a dance routine in the midst of her swank office, they might have been musical comedy partners for all their lives. But Nichols and May, staying true to their source material, kept Baranski off screen when the movie needed her most. Here, she’s beached literally and figuratively in a none-too-appetizing May-December fling with the teeth-flashing young actor Philip Michael, whose enormous teased Afro, tinted sepia and gold, reminds one—no brickbats, please—of a Caribbean Buckwheat.
What Mamma Mia! will be remembered for, long after Ann Roth’s costumes have faded, is a breathtakingly powerful confrontation that surfaces up nearly out of nowhere. As a wedding processional wends along a winding country path, with the bride, Sophie, atop a donkey, toward an old stone church perched high on a cliff, Donna lingers behind a few steps to observe her daughter’s ascent. Pierce Brosnan, playing another of Donna’s ex-paramours, a man who, like the others, may or may not be Sophie’s father, pops up for a last-minute squabble with Donna. Streep and Brosnan—at the risk of sounding like a publicist—have undeniable chemistry. These two ought to work together again—and soon. With the churning ocean and steep, crag-strewn landscape behind her, Donna, fiddling with her windswept, gauzy orange scarf, sings “The Winner Takes It All.” Streep accomplishes in this scene what only the most skillful alchemists can do: she transmutes hokum into finery. She takes those lyrics, which could be rather strident, and she makes them ambivalent. Through hesitating in her delivery, shifting her tone, and letting her voice crack, she imbues humanity into the song. Streep turns the whole notion of winning and losing on its head. And Brosnan listens superlatively, as if heartbreak itself were something altogether new. – NPT
July 17, 2008