There are people out there who will not merely love this film version of the popular stage musical Mamma Mia!, but who will adore it. I wish them the joy of it. Look, if you’re keen on ABBA and actually like a lot—I mean a whole lot—of people singing and dancing (not necessarily very well), squealing with spurious delight, and wearing hearty fake smiles in an attempt to convince you that they’re having a Great Time and you should be, too, this is your movie. Enjoy it and read no further.
I don’t actively dislike ABBA, though I certainly never took the Swedish pop-music act seriously. They fell into the category of “inanely catchy”—not good, but not bad enough to start fiddling with the radio dial. In context, ABBA songs can work pretty well—see The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and Muriel’s Wedding (1995). The Mamma Mia!-style ending of Priscilla is a magnificent celebration of friendship, family (in more than one sense of the word) and community. It is, in fact, exactly the kind of life-affirming, joyous experience that the film Mamma Mia! tries so desperately to be—and at which it fails so miserably. It fails because it insists the songs are more than finely tooled pop tunes. It fails because it doesn’t grasp Noel Coward’s observation: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” But it fails, most of all, because it’s such an awful movie from nearly every angle.
Let’s start with the plot. OK, so plots aren’t exactly what musicals are known for, but is it too much to hope for that they make even marginal sense? The backstory is that Donna (Meryl Streep) had three closely spaced romantic trysts—with Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard)—resulting in the birth of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). The problem is that Donna herself doesn’t know which one is the father, and Sophie—now 20 and about to be married—really wants to know who her father is. Even if you are willing to accept the idea that 20 years ago Meryl Streep was a wild young lady of 20, there’s still something wrong with the timeline of events. Ludicrous flashbacks to Messrs. Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgard in hippie drag and references to “flower power” would suggest these couplings took place around 1968. That would either make Sophie 40 years old, or indicate that Donna had a gestation period that would give an elephant cause for pause.
There are other peculiar scripting notions. There’s a scene between Harry and Bill that comes pretty much out of nowhere and is obviously trying to convey something, but ends up being mostly confusing. I think the scene is about Harry either “coming out” to Bill, or Bill thinking Harry is trying to. Vindication about Harry’s sexual orientation comes reels later—if you look fast and see him hooked up with another man in the climactic number (well, one of the climactic numbers, since the movie doesn’t know when to quit).
But back to the “plot.” Donna has settled on the same Greek island (mythical home of “Aphrodite’s Spring,” which makes a return appearance as what looks suspiciously like a burst water main) where her virtue was compromised 20 (or 40) years ago. On this island, Donna runs a crumbling hotel: Shutters fall to earth with near-murderous results; the plumbing doesn’t work; fresh paint is unknown; and, perhaps worst of all, Donna announces, “I have a crack in my courtyard” (but let’s not go there). Into this come her three ex-swains, invited to Sophie’s wedding by the bride herself, who attempts to hide the trio in “the old goat house” (we never see the new goat house, but a goat gooses Donna during the “Mamma Mia” number, so the herd is still around.) Mirth ensues.
All this silliness is supposed to lead to the discovery of Sophie’s father. The answer’s a lemon, of course, and none of it seems much more than an excuse to string a bunch of ABBA’s greatest hits on the soundtrack (and some non-hits to fill in). This might’ve worked if the songs had actually been integrated into the story, but they mostly feel only loosely connected—if at all—to the proceedings. Dance routines are jaw-droppingly bad—fulfilling one of the reasons people give when they say they don’t like musicals. The singing ranges from pretty good in the case of Streep to the level of “What was that?” in the case of Brosnan. (Burt Reynolds’ attempts at vocalizing in At Long Last Love have at long last been vindicated by sheer relativity.)
It’s occasionally possible to see what was being attempted. The “Dancing Queen” number is supposed to be a rallying cry to middle-aged women to find their inner 17-year-old. That’s a nice idea, but director Phyllida Lloyd (who also helmed the stage show) has such a heavy hand—and zero sense of fantasy—that she crushes it with one smack and then drowns its writhing corpse with the movie’s signature forced cheeriness. Except in moments of faux drama, everyone smiles as if determined to justify massive dental bills. To assure us they’re having fun, the women don’t talk, but scream and squeal constantly (I’ve been to hog neuterings that were tranquil by comparison). Unless you buy into this ersatz jubilance and its grim determination to make you feel good, you’re apt to long for a tranquilizer gun by the 20-minute mark. After that, you may want heavier firepower.
Yet for all of this, I am forced to admit that I’ve revisited several stretches of the movie two or three times since my first viewing. I know it’s not good, but something compels me to watch the damned thing. Occasionally, I’ll think, “This is actually pretty clev—,” but the thought gets obliterated before I can finish the word. So what draws me back? Beats me. But I resent the hell out of it. Rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments.