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The jukebox musical—a collection of pop songs strung together by a meager plot—threatened to destroy Broadway for a while there, but is only now making it to the movies. Now the rest of the country can understand what theater fans have been complaining about for years, ever since the ABBA-inspired Mamma Mia! opened on 51st Street.
The movie version, with its lazy plot and shoehorned-in songs, is busy, shrill and ridiculous, substituting bright colors and overacting for the kind of organic joy an actual musical can provide. And yet it is, in its kooky way, a good amount of fun. Mileage will vary, depending on one’s affection for ABBA, nonsensical dance numbers and middle-aged women cutting loose in sparkly outfits. If you are a middle-aged woman, or the daughter of one, Mamma Mia is an acceptable summertime escape. For all others though, buyer beware.
The movie’s plot, such as it is, kicks off when 20-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) impulsively decides to invite three strangers to her wedding, after learning that each of them had been involved with her mother around the time she was conceived. Stuffy Harry (Colin Firth), dashing Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and suave Sam (Pierce Brosnan) all arrive at the remote Greek island where Sophie lives with her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep).
In the meantime, Donna reminisces about her glory days as a rock star with her best friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). Oh, and Sophie has her own duo of supporters, but with ten supposed major characters, you couldn’t expect all of them to get personalities. Dominic Cooper is in there too as Sophie’s improbably named fiance Sky, but he seems to have mostly been cast for his abs.
In a Broadway musical the main attraction is the big song and dance numbers, and so it goes here too. “Dancing Queen,” which inspires all the women of the island to skip down to the dock and shake their booties, is a hoot. So is “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, taking place at Sophie’s bachelorette party, where a gaggle of 20-year-old girls supposedly are aching to get their hands on Stellan Skarsgard. And “Money, Money, Money,” however poorly jammed into the plot, is a weird fantasia that provides opportunity to see Meryl Streep in a diaphanous white dress, tied to the bow of a ship like a wooden statue. You can’t see this in The Dark Knight, that’s for sure.
But the problem with all those bubbly songs is they existed first as standalone pop songs, which means none of them do a thing to advance the plot. That’s OK for a couple of ballads, but the story starts to drag so terribly you dread the moment a character feels a song comin’ on, knowing it’ll be a few more minutes before things get moving again.
The actors all smile big and project to the back row in a manic attempt to get us to join in their crazy fun. Only Baranski and Julie Waters seem to understand how to relate to the camera, while Firth is so awkward in his poorly written role... well he at least isn’t garish. Streep is game of course, but her forced enthusiasm rarely lets a real character escape. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who helmed the stage version as well, seems to have figured the paper-thin characters and theatrical staging would transfer just fine into the movie. Instead the whole thing makes all plays look bad by comparison—are they really all this artificial?
And yet, despite everything I’ve just told you, there’s something ingrained in some of us that makes our hearts skip a happy beat when another catchy song cues up and people start doing the hand jive. It makes Mamma Mia! kind of like a cheesy Vegas show, like Siegfried & Roy or Wayne Newton: It’s silly, it’s over-the-top, you’re miserable, your Mom made you come, but you spent the whole time trying to hide the smile on your face. Don’t worry, you’re safe here. Go see Mamma Mia! after your 6 a.m. Dark Knight screening; no one will see you. We never have to speak of this again. When it comes out on DVD, you’re invited to my sing-along viewing party.