Sophie was raised by her single mother on an idyllic Greek island and is about to get married. She has no idea who her father is. Naughtily reading her mother’s old diary, she narrows the gene pool to three guys her mom dallied with twenty years ago and she invites them all to the wedding under false pretences. Such is the unlikely framework for the musical Mamma Mia!, which serves as an excuse to string ABBA songs together. These are often only mildly appropriate to the situation at hand and though some have been edited slightly to fit the story and make sense in context, others will leave you scratching your head in confusion, the use of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ being a prime example. I saw the Dutch stage version of this musical a couple of years back, and the movie appears to be faithful to its theatre roots.
Watching Mamma Mia! is like being repeatedly slapped about the face with a rainbow while being told to turn your frown upside down. At the beginning you might feel a bit left out of the aggressively cheerful camaraderie that unites most of the cast from the very start. It’s like coming sober to a party where the others are already tipsy and well into the swing of things. There are two reactions to this movie: go with it and smile or flee the theatre and don’t look back.
It’s obvious that the cast was having a ball and their fun is infectious. Not all of them are equally gifted when it comes to singing. Let’s just say that you will be glad that James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) never belted one out for his own opening credits. Meryl Streep does a little better, thankfully, as she does a lot more warbling than Brosnan. But the overall lack of polish is part of the charm. Nobody seems to be taking any of it seriously. Some of the dancing is especially over the top silly, never more so than when a row of boys in flippers strut their stuff on a sun-drenched dock. I couldn’t help but feel a bit embarrassed for them.
Don’t expect the characters to ever fully become 3D, they are all sketches at best and are jumping through the unlikely hoops of the plot. Comedies like this one, which are based on secrets and misunderstandings, thrive on people not doing the most logical and direct thing to solve their problems. A happy ending was obviously unavoidable, but the emotions in play at the climax weren’t set up properly earlier in the movie. A small gay twist at this time, which probably wasn’t hinted at before to make it a bigger surprise, feels to the viewer like it was made up on the spot. The larger romantic twist was predictable but is unbelievable because the two people who make a major leap of commitment, barely seemed to be on good terms up until that point. But you don’t watch this movie for coherence or plot; you watch it to see some fairly major stars bust a move in a dreamily tropical location, while lovingly torturing ABBA songs. And on that slightly off-key note: don’t miss the performance at the end credits.
Mamma Mia!, 2008. 108 min. Director: Phyllida Lloyd. Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Colin Firth.