Review: “Mamma Mia!”

A clumsily executed but energetic musical, ‘Mia’ is a shockingly amateurish film replete with badly choreographed dance numbers, a plot that barely holds together, flat characters, poor direction and a mostly wasted cast.

All of this would normally add up to a production that would go straight to the bargain basement DVD bin, yet ‘Mia’ manages to hold together and at times delight thanks to its enthusiastic vibrancy, surprising performances by the female leads, and a soundtrack consisting of some of the best and most familiar pop songs in history. It’s campy in the extreme, but like the city of Las Vegas you have to be able to embrace the sheer abundance of cheesiness in order to truly savour the experience.

Admittedly, like many musicals, the most fundamental issues here aren’t with the film per se but with the original stage production itself. Unlike a proper musical which writes the score alongside the story and uses the songs to deliver key plot points, ‘Mamma Mia’ retrofitted its storyline around pre-existing and often quite diverse ABBA songs. As a result a narrative had to be created that fitted numbers about such topics as gold digging hussies (“Money, Money, Money”), marriage (“I Do I Do”), bittersweet former romance (“The Winner Takes It All”), coming of age (“Dancing Queen”), and being a slut (“Gimme Gimme Gimme,” “Lay All Your Love on Me”).

The result never entirely worked. With more than half the time devoted to songs with lyrics that bared little relation to what was on-stage, the musical fell back on a rather rote story about a young bride-to-be living on a Greek island and trying to find which one of the three former suitors of her mother is her dad so he can give her away at the altar. It was bland, predictable and hardly going to win any awards, but it worked as a stage event because the numbers were well sung, upbeat, catchy and required audience participation.

Film musicals however are an entirely different medium, one where audience involvement is deliberately sidelined but staging is opened right up – it has more scope but must work harder to elicit an emotional response from the viewer – whether it be in a crowded cinema full of fans or someone unfamiliar with the material watching it alone at home. This is where the flaws not only with the film translation but the original musical itself sadly come into clear perspective.

It’s very obvious that director Phyllida Lloyd has never done film before, thus the film’s staging remains very theatrical and artificial despite the use of some idyllic locations around the Aegean coast. With the exception perhaps of Christine Baranski’s solo outing, the various numbers are poorly shot and choreographed – from Streep’s cliff top or rooftop flaying about, to a rendition of “Dancing Queen” where a hundred arthritic washer women try to form a pier-side kick line. The local Greeks are treated like naughty but well-intentioned imps with their pushing people into trapdoors, or their heads popping up out of holes to sing back up vocals.

With the story, direction and dancing all failing to work, it’s up to the songs and cast to do the heavy lifting and the result is a mixed bag due to the decision to hire actors over singers. The big revelation here is Meryl Streep, the veteran actress who is so deft at dramatic roles demonstrates considerable vocal skills, most notably when it comes to the big notes which she can belt out with raw power (her skill with the softer and quieter notes isn’t as deft sadly). Christine Baranski and Julie Walters lend enjoyable comic relief as her old friends, while Amanda Seyfried as the daughter shows considerable potential.

The male cast isn’t so auspicious. By far the film’s weakest point is the woefully miscast Pierce Brosnan, the former James Bond playing not only a very dull character but given the majority of the male vocals. This wouldn’t be so bad if his voice didn’t sound like someone violating water fowl. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgaard fare better as the two other suitors with more interesting personalities, though Firth’s last act gay turn seems a cheap ploy for that demographic. That group will appreciate far more the well-sculpted chest of Dominic Cooper on gratuitous display throughout. The actor can sing and at least is the one major cast member whose looks could pass off as Greek – at least until he opens his mouth and the most refined British accent you’ll ever hear comes out. Even though he’s the groom-to-be, Cooper is mostly sidelined as a character.

‘Mia’ as a movie has its moments. Early scenes of Streep, Baranski and Walters having fun together ring with a very comfortable and natural feel missing from the rest of the campy proceedings. The ‘Chiquitita’ toilet routine, Walters scrambling across the rooftops after Sarsgaard during ‘Take a Chance on Me’, the old girl band rendition of ‘Super Trouper’, etc. ring with a great sense of fun that it’s hard not to smile. The songs are as great as ever and while one or two are essentially butchered (‘SOS’ due to bloody Pierce and ‘Winner Takes It All’ as it’s sung so out of context), and their most famous number ‘Fernando’ is notably absent, the rest still shine through even if none of those involved can come close to matching Frida & Agnetha’s vocal talents.

Yet good songs do not a good movie make. Baz Luhrmann’s over-indulgent “Moulin Rouge” and Julie Taymor’s inspired “Across the Universe” both demonstrated that a good cast, great production design, solid direction and familiar pop ballads can overcome a shoddy patchwork of a script to deliver a memorable and entertaining experience. Had a more experienced cinematic director along with a cast more vocally suitable been involved there is certainly the potential here to have delivered something of a wide-appealing caliber. Instead we’re left with a rather poorly made misfire that will really only appeal to its target audience (and even they will compare it very unfavorably to the stage version). ABBA’s legacy will stand the test of time far longer than this.