A Musical S.o.s.

Don't take a chance on 'Mamma Mia!': The forced farce of a movie hits all the wrong notes

Review C-

July 18, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Mamma Mia!, the film of the international stage smash showcasing the greatest hits of ABBA, is like a party where everyone is so desperate to have a good time that it makes you miserable.

With Meryl Streep as a former pop-rock star who now runs a decaying Greek tourist hotel and Christine Baranski and Julie Walters as her ex-band mates, the movie has a set of actresses who can sing and dance.

But you won't be able to gauge their skill from the evidence here. The director, Phyllida Lloyd, encourages them to embellish their tunes with campy humor or belt them at the top of their lungs. The choreographer, Anthony Van Laast, too often reduces them to stagy pratfalls and poses, or gyrations common to proms, weddings and bar mitzvahs.

We rarely see the dancers in full form, and the filmmakers don't allow them to build their numbers with skill and emotion anyway. They cut this movie with a decades-old Cuisinart. Their urge to leap from high point to high point flattens everything out.

Amanda Seyfried plays the innkeeper's daughter, a bride-to-be who wants to know which of her mother's ex-lovers is her father (the candidates are played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard). In a scheme that's supposed to be endlessly amusing, not just to her and her two friends (Rachel McDowall and Ashley Lilley) but to the audience, she invites all three men to her mom's hotel for the wedding.

The screenwriter and original librettist, Catherine Johnson, milks this itty-bitty premise until it's painfully dry. The process takes minutes.

The invitation itself, the arrival of the men, the daughter disclosing her scheme to her friends, their oath to keep it a secret, the mother's discovery of what it's all about: This super-sized musical moves in baby steps.

The distance between the starting point and end point is mere inches away. The movie runs 108 minutes only because the huge cast of characters, including the groom-to-be (Dominic Cooper), use ABBA's hits to sing out their responses to the farce, the island or each other.

The film dares you not to applaud. Every tune is meant to be a showstopper, but there's precious little show to stop. The moviemakers fill the screen with so much forced laughter, cheers and applause that the ersatz high spirits become coercive. Instead of being infectiously sociable and funny, a movie to see with a crowd, it becomes a turnoff. If you don't walk in determined to enjoy it, you may want to walk out.

It's all very sitcom in a lazy, messy way that makes you appreciate sitcoms. The elders were free spirits in their youth, but the daughter seems to want her big idiotic Greek wedding. Streep plays the relatively sane and sturdy center of her circle, while Baranski is a man-killer and Walters the acerbic quipster. Among the men, Firth is the uptight banker, Skarsgard the hardy adventurer, and Brosnan the cool all-rounder: Streep's own Mr. Big. It's like Family Ties meets Sex and the City on a glittering Mediterranean isle.

The estimable Firth turns gentleness and self-consciousness into comic tools until he's saddled with a cheap-joke ending, and Brosnan is briskly affable until he opens his mouth to sing and starts hurling aural fur balls.

Whenever the older women get a chance to put over a relatively quiet, unbroken section of song, they're undercut by the swelling orchestration or director Lloyd's clunkiness. Choreographer Van Laast must think it's infinitely funny to turn nameless island workers and partygoers into a combination Greek chorus and chorus line. Believe me, the humor here is finite.

However you feel about the ABBA songbook, the music boasts clever hooks you can't pull from your memory. It shouldn't have been difficult to make them the rhythmic engines of numbers filled with jollity and romance.

But in Mamma Mia!, having fun looks too much like hard work.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Watch a preview and see more photos from Mamma Mia! at baltimoresun.com/mammamia

Mamma Mia!

(Universa l) Starring Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Christine Baranski, Colin Firth. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Rated PG-13 for some sexual language. Time 108 minutes.

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