July 17, 2008


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Mamma Mia! (PG-13)
You can dance, you can da-aance (and you might as well, because you’ll have ABBA songs stuck in your head for days) at Mamma Mia!, the hokey, cheeseball total mess of a giddy fun musical.

For those who haven’t caught this story on the stage: Donna (Meryl Streep) is an aging hippie who is readying the sensuously crumbling hotel she owns in Greece for the wedding of her young and fluttery daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). Sophie, all moony-eyed over the prospect of really “knowing herself,” has invited to her wedding the three men who could potentially be the father she’s never met. They are the adventurous Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), the stuffy Harry (Colin Firth) and the Pierce Brosnany Sam (Pierce Brosnan). As with any good Shakespeare comedy, Sophie doesn’t tell Donna this so Donna is horrified when the three men show up and fears that Sophie will find out about her questionable parentage. On top of that, Donna still harbors anger at all three men and holds a torch for one of them. Luckily, she has her two old friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski), to share her fears and sorrows with.

Oh, and all of this is expressed via ABBA songs.

It’s an overused but in this case appropriate phrase: Mamma Mia! is a hot mess. Not one single thing about it feels organic. If the characters had stopped the scene to rush over to iPods wherein they queued up the songs they planned to sing, they still could not have less gracefully transitioned from speech to song than they do here. And, much like, say, me singing along to my iPod, a lot of the songs here don’t feel particularly artfully executed. From the actual singing to the at-times awkward choreography, there’s something of an audition-tape feel to some of the numbers. This uneasiness seemed to spill over into the acting to create perofrmances that just feel fake — from Streep’s hyperactivity as Donna to the deeply disturbing sight of Pierce Brosnan singing.

And yet, mess though it is, Mamma Mia is strange goofy fun. A Greek chorus (they’re Greek, they sing the choruses) accompanies many of the songs — a lame joke but one I couldn’t help but laugh at several times. A Busby Berkeley-style chorus line of young, shirtless men would get the sourest sourpuss blubbering with laughter. The show-stopping rendition of “Dancing Queen” is both a credible contender for World’s Biggest Cornball and quite possibly the most fun five or so minutes of film in a very long time. A scene wherein Colin Firth deadpans “I’m spontaneous” is worth the price of a ticket alone. (The crowd with which I saw this movie seemed to feel similarly about a shot of Firth with his shirt off.) And then there are the movie’s final moments — post-story, pre-credits — when Streep, Walters and Baranski and then, even more delightfully, Skarsgrd, Firth and Brosnan come on stage dressed in sequined body suits to sing straight at the camera. I can not overemphasize how important it is that you stay in the theater for this.

Mamma Mia! is undoubtedly a bad movie, but it is a remarkably enjoyable one. It is what I had hoped for (but did not receive) with Sex and the City; namely, a god awful train wreck that was a complete guilty-pleasure delight to sit through. Reserve me a ticket now for the inevitable midnight showing, complete with costumes and props a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, of this strange and glorious blend of aggressively catchy pop song and electric-slide-like dance. True, not a thing in this movie feels natural or real, but, like a cubic zirconia-studded screaming pink polyester pantsuit, its fakeness is thoroughly fascinating. So is it a D for its many problems? An A for pure can’t-look-away entertainment value? Let’s split the difference (sort of) and say that for those not allergic to this brand of cheese-covered corn, it’s a solid 100-some minutes of grade B fun.

Rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and written by Catherine Johnson, Mamma Mia! is an hour and 48 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, July 18. It is distributed by Universal Pictures Distribution.