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Mamma Mia! (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

Mamma Mia!

MAMMA MIA! (2008)

Starring Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Christine Baranski, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Rachel McDowall and Ashley Lilley.

Screenplay by Catherine Johnson.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Mamma Mia! has been a bit of a surprise as a theatrical phenomenon – and yet in a lot of ways it makes perfect sense.

It is a light as air confection, a love note to marriage, family, the Greek Isles and 70s pop culture.

And, frankly, it’s got a hell of a lot better music than 90% of all Broadway shows.

For the music all comes from the songbook of ABBA, the Swedish group that over a career that lasted barely a decade put together one of the great pop songbooks of recent history.

Some of the music of ABBA is used a little oddly in the movie version of Mamma Mia! – “Waterloo” as background music in one scene and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” becomes an instrumental wedding march. Other songs do not exactly make sense to the action in the story – for example when a daughter sings “Honey Honey” about the father she never met, it’s just a little creepy. After all the song has lines like “you’re a love machine/boy you make me dizzy…” and “honey, to say the least, you’re a doggone beast.” Not very daughterly. Even when the songs do sort of fit the situation, they always feel a little shoehorned in.

In the movie version, everything is done a little bigger than on stage. We actually get to see the Greek Isle home of Donna (Meryl Streep), a former pop star who now runs a bed and breakfast and is throwing a wedding party for her daughter. The normally spot-on actress is obviously having a ball playing the role – she is going way over-the-top in a manner that she almost never allows herself to approach on film (mostly for good reasons.). However, maybe she should have been told to reign it in a bit – it is certainly far from one of Streep’s better performances.

The Greek Isle is gorgeous and lends itself to joyous singing and dancing. Yet, it all probably works better on the stage.

The story – what little story there is – has the daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried of Mean Girls) inviting three of Donna’s exes to her wedding in hopes of finding out who her dad is. The trio are all different types (Pierce Brosnan as an American, Colin Firth as a Brit and Stellan Skarsgård as a Greek) and meeting each does nothing to clear up her paternity.

Brosnan is having a lot of fun in the role and he plays it with a breezy charm – but really, he can’t sing. Not being mean, but he really, really can’t, and eventually has three or four songs – none of which work – specifically because Brosnan does not have the vocal talent to pull them off. Couldn’t they have dubbed his vocals with another singer? Was Marni Nixon too busy or something? Frankly, Julie Walters could have used a vocal ringer, too.

The other singers ranged from nice-enough-but-unexceptional (Colin Firth) to perfectly competent if a little mannered (Meryl Streep has sung before and does a fine job, but she’s not going to make anyone forget Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters or Betty Buckley) to surprisingly relaxed and charming (Amanda Seyfried could have more of a career in musicals if she decides to go that way.)

Still, too much of the singing and much of the dancing is amateurish. (The dancing divers on a dock during the “Lay All Your Love on Me” set piece are almost comically bad).

This is particularly noticeable when Christine Baranski gets her solo shot with “Does Your Mother Know?” The long-time hoofer comes out smoking and schools the rest of the cast. It makes you wonder what this film could have been had they actually got more song and dance pros and were less concerned with finding great thespians – since Mamma Mia! is certainly not an actor’s film.

I recognize that was what they were going for – trying to make it seem that love will bring the common people to song, despite their talent (or lack thereof…). Still, it’s sort of like the difference between Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago – Zellweger was an actress who could kind of sing and dance, Zeta-Jones was a singer and dancer who can also act damned well. Despite the fact that Zellweger was the supposed star, Zeta-Jones stole the film right out from under her – just because she had the all of the talent needed for the role.

Most of the cast of Mamma Mia! only has part of the talent, which seems to be selling both the film and the audience short. Luckily the music is good enough that it weathers the sometimes-underwhelming performances.

Mamma Mia isn’t a great movie. It’s not even a very good movie. However, it is a fun movie, which is all it ever wanted to be. Sometimes that’s enough.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008 All rights reserved. Posted: July 20, 2008.

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