Just as some people like Anne Geddes posters, Nicholas Sparks novels, and imitation bacon bits, some people like ABBA. For the rest of us baffled by the appeal of its disco-diluted pop and ESOL lyrics, listening to “Dancing Queen” or “Waterloo” is like chewing gum that’s dropped in the sand — a little squirt of fruit flavor, a lot of grit between the teeth. Like those freakish deep-sea creatures that live happily in a toxic soup of methane brine miles beneath the water’s surface, the cast of Mamma Mia! is unaware they’re living in an equally noxious ABBA-rich environment. However, they’ve all evolved a survival mutation — in moments of emotional stress, their gaze steadies with frightening sincerity and they burst into song, no matter how inappropriate this warbling may be.
It’s a shame about that mutation thing, because Sophie (Seyfried) has got so much going for her otherwise. She’s Botticelli-pretty, beautifully voiced, engaged to marry, and spends her days in the rustic Mediterranean hotel run by her mother Donna (Streep). Seems Mom got stranded here on some magical mystery tour when one of the three swains she was, uh, “courting”, knocked her up, a detail Sophie discovers in Mom’s diary to the strains of “Honey, Honey.”
Sophie’s eager to be given away by her father, so, without Donna’s knowledge, she sends each man — Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, and Pierce Brosnan — an invitation to her wedding. If you predict that hijinks ensue, it does not mean you are psychic. It means you have seen too many movies where adults repeatedly misunderstand situations that would be transparent to a room full of first graders, and where people fall into water while fully dressed.
Does Marni Nixon feel a tremor in her bones like Peter Parker’s spider sense when some ill-suited actor attempts to tackle the libretto themselves? Poor gal must have been vibrating like a tuning fork during the filming of this movie, as Streep squeezes out a tense and strangled croak in song after torturous song. Brosnan doesn’t fare much better with his wispy castrato, but at least Christine Baranski knows how to work a crowd.
Maybe there’s a tendency to come down extra hard on movie adaptations of musicals, because musicals by nature are the big, tumbling sheepdog puppies of theater. They’re shameless in their desire to please, turning somersaults for the audience’s enjoyment in a simple and unabashed way that even the most sensationalistic movies find undignified. But consider the movie musicals that do work, like West Side Story and Chicago. Think of that granddaddy of jukebox musicals, Singin’ In the Rain, and how Gene Kelly and company hover light years above this sorry bunch. Think of the care with which that movie was constructed, and then consider the sloppy fact that Sophie’s character is 20 years old, which means Donna’s free-love escapade with the mustachioed and love-beaded men seen in flashback took place in the wild Summer of Love of ... 1988? Any filmmaker who’d let that rotten part of their movie’s foundation remain shows either a contemptuous disregard for the audience, or the delusion that carefree and careless are the same thing.