Movie Review: Mamma Mia!
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
It's funny what you buy completely onstage and resist completely, or nearly, on-screen. Case in point: "Mamma Mia!" -the ABBA-fueled stage phenomenon that has now become "Mamma Mia! The Movie."
Of course I never miss a Meryl Streep musical. On-screen she sang in "Silkwood," "Ironweed," "Postcards From the Edge" and plenty in "A Prairie Home Companion." Onstage Streep put her pipes to work on Brecht and Weill's "Happy End"; years ago I heard a bootleg '70s recording of "The 1940s Radio Hour," which showcased Streep and her fellow Yale Drama School classmates on a variety of big-band standards.
Given this resume, it's really no surprise the screen doyenne can handle the ABBA tunes with aplomb. It's disappointing, then, to see the film version of the stage hit turn out this way - not lousy, but pushy. I've happily seen the stage version three times, and the way director Phyllida Lloyd finessed the corny setups and refused to treat the product like a blockbuster, the results were very sweet and even moving.
However assured her theatrical talent, Lloyd hasn't yet determined what sort of film director she has in her. She goes at "Mamma Mia!" like a frisky, easily distracted puppy. Slow-mo leaps in the air; pop-eyed reaction shots: Everything's in twinkle overdrive. As with most stage-to-screen transfers, about a half-hour of material has been excised, and "Mamma Mia!" never had that much story to begin with. Free spirit Donna (Streep) lives with her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) on a Greek island, where her unbearably scenic taverna, legend has it, sits atop Aphrodite's fountain. Love is in the air and in the water.
Sophie's about to marry the unfortunately named Sky (Dominic Cooper). The bride-to-be learns her father, whom she never knew, is one of three possible candidates, all of whom Donna knew That Certain Summer 20-odd years ago. Sophie doesn't tell her mom they're coming to the wedding. The gents are played by Pierce Brosnan, who duets with Streep on "SOS," "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do" and "When All Is Said and Done"; Colin Firth, who handles his more modest vocal requirements rather better; and Stellan Skarsgard. Donna's comrades and former bandmates are played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski.
The performances are more competitive than collegial, at least among the women, and Streep - formidable as always - doesn't exactly ease into the material. It's more like a well-planned beach assault. She calms down fully at one point and one point only, during the mother/daughter wedding prep scene "Slipping Through My Fingers"; tellingly, the number's also the calmest and most purposeful in its directorial approach. The rest of the show is supposed to be frantic and manic in comparison. Yet what flowed easily and well onstage, thanks to "Dancing Queen" and various other irresistibly catchy ABBA tunes, lurches and pushes on-screen. Call it "My Big Comparatively Thin Greek Wedding," and let's hope the next Meryl Streep musical fares better, as does the next film by director Lloyd.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sex-related comments)
Running time: 1:48
Starring: Meryl Streep (Donna); Pierce Brosnan (Sam); Colin Firth (Harry); Stellan Skarsgard (Bill); Julie Walters (Rosie); Dominic Cooper (Sky); Amanda Seyfried (Sophie); Christine Baranski (Tanya)
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd; screenplay by Catherine Johnson, based on the stage musical by Johnson, conceived by Judy Craymer, based on the songs by ABBA; photographed by Haris Zambarloukos; edited by Lesley Walker; music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, additional material by Stig Anderson; produced by Craymer and Gary Goetzman. A Universal Pictures release.