If Hollywood could have taken one lesson from the disastrous movie version of the hit Broadway musical “The Producers,” it should have been never to hire the director of the stage show to helm the film. In the case of “The Producers,” director Susan Stroman had her actors broadly mugging for the third balcony rather than dialing down the manic intensity for the relative intimacy of the movie camera.
As for “Mamma Mia!”, brought kicking and screaming to the screen by its stage director Phyllida Lloyd, the first-time feature filmmaker constantly puts the camera in the wrong place so as to undercut the musical numbers; she makes the first half-hour all about people hugging and squealing; she sucks the energy out of almost every ABBA song being trounced about by the jukebox musical’s cast; and she apparently lacked the wherewithal to stop cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos from shooting a dingy, washed-out movie set in one of the planet’s most beautiful corners.
The story, seemingly jotted down on the back of an ouzo-soaked cocktail napkin, goes something like this: Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has grown up on a picturesque Greek island with her mother Donna (Meryl Streep), who was a rock singer back in the day. Sophie’s about to get married, but she wants her father to give her way; trouble is, she has no idea who that might be. After finding Mom’s old diary, Sophie narrows her paternity down to three candidates, and she invites all of Donna’s old flames to the wedding.
There’s Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), the world-traveling Swede; Harry (Colin Firth), the uptight, anal-retentive Brit; and Sam (Pierce Brosnan), the American who broke Donna’s heart by leaving her to enter into an arranged marriage. That’s right, Pierce Brosnan as the American. Casting him might have been forgivable if he brought, say, a decent singing voice to the table, but Brosnan croaks out three numbers in a most disturbing way. On the scale of Celebrities Who Can’t Sing, he’s a few notches above Lee Marvin in “Paint Your Wagon” but falls short of the vocal skills of Burt Reynolds in “At Long Last Love.”
The script of “Mamma Mia!” (by Catherine Johnson) raises more questions than it answers: If Donna has gone through hell and high water to bring up Sophie on her own, why is her daughter so obsessed with dragging her heretofore unknown dad into her wedding? If Sophie has never left the island, where did she meet her British fiancé and gal pals? And when, exactly, is all of this taking place? There’s a reference to the internet early on, but when Donna’s old boyfriends talk about knowing her “20 years ago,” Harry mentions his Johnny Rotten T-shirt (which implies the late ’70s) while Bill references flower power and peace signs (which implies the late ’60s).
If there’s one redeeming factor to “Mamma Mia!” it’s the preternatural ebullience of Meryl Streep, who imbues every one of her musical numbers with a joy and effervescence that the rest of the movie sadly lacks. (Seyfried is a fine actress, but when she sings, it’s karaoke night at the sorority. ABBA songs, contrary to popular belief, do pack a punch when sung correctly.) Whether she’s doing a split in mid-air or leading a group of Greek village women in a rousing rendition of “Dancing Queen,” turning it into a sort of feminist anthem, Streep gets all the notes, from kooky to plaintive, just right.
She’s the only one who transcends this misbegotten production, however. Julie Walters has never seemed more awkward on film, and the rest of the cast looks like they were having a great Mediterranean vacation that was occasionally interrupted by making an embarrassing movie.
While ABBA will no doubt augment their considerable personal fortunes thanks to this movie, nothing about “Mamma Mia!” boosts the group’s aesthetic legacy. Stay home with “Muriel’s Wedding” — or, even better, the “Thank You for the Music” CD box set — instead.