By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Phyllida Lloyd, U.S., Universal Pictures
Have we forgotten how to watch movie musicals? Forget about whether or not they make them like they used toâ€”they donâ€™t, and they havenâ€™t for about 50 years. But what does it say about our collective moviegoing habits that the same audiences who mostly spurned Chris Columbusâ€™s Rent (admittedly, no masterpiece) and Tim Burtonâ€™s Sweeney Todd have turned out in droves for Hairspray and Mamma Mia!? Columbus and Burton take their stories and charactersâ€”and the genreâ€”seriously. They use the medium to their advantage, staging their numbers with and for the camera; through framing, camera movement, editing, choreography, or production design, they craft rousing, sometimes resonant cinematic spectacle out of their theatrical raw material. Hairspray and Mamma Mia!, by contrast, are clearly products of a post-musical era, in which the genre itself is treated like a joke, where musical numbers are less displays of technical virtuosity than extended gags, sometimes at the expense of the performers themselves (in Hairspray, John Travolta's pseudo-drag performance becomes a running punchline; Mamma Mia!'s male leads are made equally ridiculous without the aid of dresses or fat suits).
Effectively, audiences have rejected the recent musicals that most resemble actual movies and instead embraced ineptitude with defiant glee. â€śI just wanted to smile and enjoy myself for a couple hours,â€ť sigh Mamma Mia!â€™s apologists, positing a trade-off between entertainment and cinematic proficiency, but it's a false choice. Dance and melody, mise-en-scĂ¨ne and movement, spectacle and logic-defying plotâ€”these are the constituent elements of a genre with an improbably high built-in fun quotient (even material as â€śdifficultâ€ť as Sweeney Todd has something deliriously infectious about it), and so thereâ€™s no reason why our search for a toe-tapping good time at the movies should lead us to choose the offensively bad over the competent. Yet audiences have done just that, propelling Mamma Mia!â€”a movie with less craft and grace than an episode of Cop Rockâ€”to the biggest opening weekend ever for a movie musical.
Like Hairspray, Mamma Mia! is based on a modestly pleasant stage show that recycles endearingly nostalgic pop material with an effervescent exuberance and a self-conscious wink. Unburdened by Hairspray's ambitions to historical-political commentary and retro pastiche, Mamma Mia! has a particularly fool-proof formula: twentysomething surfer dudes and their lady friends, clad in skimpy bathing suits, dancing around on a Greek island singing ABBA songs, all in service of a suitably inane rom-com plot. Sophie (a charming Amanda Seyfried, who has a beautiful voice to boot) swipes her mother Donnaâ€™s (Meryl Streep) diary so she can finally learn the identity of her father. When she discovers there are three potential candidates (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard)â€”Donna had a busy summer 20 years agoâ€”she invites each of them to her wedding, convinced she will immediately recognize her father when she meets him. She doesn't. The premise is stupid, to be certain, but it also has the makings of a sturdy, funny, and suitably romantic contemporary spin on the fairytale musical, complete with exotic location photography.
Something happened to Mamma Mia! on its journey from stage to screen, though, a failure of execution as much as imagination. First-time film director Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed the original London show, creates constant visual distraction with swish pans and unmotivated zooms, but her reliance on too-frequent close-ups proves a fatal visual strategy in a genre that functions entirely through movement and spectacle. Not that her long shots serve her well, either: in one, a chorus line of guys waddle like ducks to â€śLay All Your Love on Me,â€ť the film's most unintentionally hilarious bit of choreography; a later shot of Streep running up a hillside to "The Winner Takes It All," her pink shawl flowing behind her, has all the pathos of a perfume ad. Throughout the film, Lloyd stages the numbers with head-slapping literal-mindedness. When Julie Walters serenades Skarsgard with "Take a Chance on Me", she chases him to a rooftop and somehow ends up hanging from a ledge as she sings the â€ścan't let goâ€ť lyric (Get it?). And is that Christine Baranski giving the flirty black bartender a blow job while belting â€śDoes Your Mother Know?â€ťâ€”Nope, she's putting him in a diaper! (Grinning, frizzy-haired black man in a diaper. Awesome.)
The film seems to clip from one bad decision to the next at break-neck speed, which makes its self-consciousness all the more infuriating. In its bachelorette party centerpiece, Lloyd cuts away from Streep, Walters, and Baranski just as they build to the chorus of â€śSuper Trouper,â€ť killing the number at its climactic moment. A few minutes later, the scene degenerates into a â€śVoulez Vousâ€ť bacchanal as the ladies tie up the three potential fathers for reasons that are utterly incomprehensible. The film starts to regain its narrative footing the morning after as Skarsgard and Firth mull over the night, but then boom!, there's Skarsgardâ€™s naked ass, a gratuitous indignity on par with earlier flashbacks to â€śyoungâ€ť hippie Brosnan. The movie's visual pokes at the expense of its male stars seem to be Lloyd's way of reminding us that it's okay to laughâ€”that we shouldn't take Mamma Mia! too seriously. But one naked ass the morning after does not mitigate or compensate for the lousy staging and editing of the bachelorette sequence (or the duck waddle or the racist spin on "Does Your Mother Know?" or anything having to do with "Money, Money, Money," about which the less said, the better). It's one thing to know you're making a stupid, disreputable movie and to let your audience in on the joke; that's no excuse for making a bad movie.
Mamma Mia! suffers from an utter lack of conviction. For a musical to succeed, it needs to offer pleasure in song and dance different from bad karaoke. But what enjoyment is there in listening to Brosnan's singing, which is something of a cross between Lucy Ricardo and, inexplicably, Viggo Mortensen's Russian mafioso in Eastern Promises? Some of the performers acquit themselves admirably, and Streep in particular manages to seem like she's having a great time while throwing herself into her role with focus and determinationâ€”so much so that she doesn't seem to notice when Seyfried steals the movie. Mamma Mia! undoubtedly represents a nadir in the Streep's career. However, it also offers further evidence that she is our greatest working actress. Setting aside the question of why she chose to take the role in the first place (we will never know), Streep, never content to slum it, throws herself into the material without self-regard. Rather than attempting to rise above the material, she burrows in, immerses herself, and tries to make the best of it. That she fails is a pity; that an actress of her stature tries so hard and commits so fully to a film like this is something of a miracle. Together, she and Seyfried give the movie its best sequence, a nicely intimate rendition of "Slipping Through My Fingers" that adds a bittersweet poignance to Sophie's wedding morning. It's the only sequence in the film that successfully redeploys an ABBA song to real emotional effect. Otherwise, Lloyd is exploiting good pop in the service of defiant amateurism. ABBA deserves better, and, frankly, so do we.
People might try to tell you that it's all good fun, that if you just don't take it seriously, Mamma Mia! is some sort of delightful confection. Don't believe them. Instead of seeing this movie, do something better with your time. Fall is comingâ€”knit a scarf! Or better yet, take a nap. Or, if you absolutely must see a new musical, download Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog: Joss Whedon's no ABBA, but his scrappy but elegant 45-minute direct-to-web musical packs more humor, joy, whimsy, and pathos than Lloyd's $52 million train wreck. Which would be embarrassing if Mamma Mia! weren't a hit. Instead, it's just sad.