Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mamma Mia: Irresistible

Mamma Mia (2008) • View trailer for Mamma Mia
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for playfully smutty dialogue
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.17.08
Buy DVD: Mamma Mia • Buy Blu-Ray: Mamma Mia! The Movie [Blu-ray]

As musicals come and go, Mamma Mia is perhaps the most deliberately frivolous ever concocted, its postage-stamp plot no more than a tissue-thin excuse to deliver a few dozen classic ABBA hits.
While leading her friends — Tanya (Christine Baranski, left) and Rosie (Julie
Walters, right) — on a tour of her villa, Donna (Meryl Streep, center) uncorks
the song "Money, Money, Money" to explain  her precarious finances ... and,
of course, the entire Greek island community joins in the ever-expanding
production number, merely one of many in this energetic musical.

Nine years, 20 productions and 30 million tickets later, the fans obviously don't care, and with good reason: The show is a high-spirited, colorful hoot. Even now, more than 17,000 people see one of the nine current productions (worldwide) every night, generating $8 million per week in ticket sales. The word "phenomenon" would not be out of place.

Mamma Mia demands strong singers, reasonably agile dancers and very little else. The narrative does not include — indeed, actively ignores — sweeping dramatic arcs.

Naturally, then, this film adaptation is filled with actors. Whose singing abilities are uneven, at best.


In fairness, star Meryl Streep throws herself into the central role of Donna with every irrepressible atom in her energized body, and she makes the part her own through sheer force of will. And, yes, Streep sings reasonably well, as proven a few years ago with the film adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion.

Co-star Julie Walters is equally memorable as the feisty, wisecracking Rosie, one of Donna's two best friends. Walters handles her one dynamic song with reasonably aplomb, substituting similar passion — and, by the time this particular number arrives, plenty of audience good will — for actual vocal chops.

Colin Firth gets off lucky; his character, Harry, need only navigate his way through a ballad, which arrives with its wistful tone more or less intact. Stellan Skarsgård's Bill, thankfully, isn't required to sing. Much.

But Pierce Brosnan?

Oh, dear.

Brosnan's Sam has two key numbers, both typical ABBA power ballads, and the picture grinds to an uncomfortable halt when he rasps his way through his first song's prologue. I haven't been this embarrassed for an actor-turned-reluctant-singer since Clint Eastwood talked to the trees back in the 1969 adaptation of Paint Your Wagon.

Mind you, I've always — always — liked Brosnan, and in all other respects he makes a great Sam. But Brosnan can't sing a lick, and Tuesday's preview audience breathed an audible sigh of relief when the backing orchestra became loud enough to better camouflage the actor's wincingly limited range.

What was everybody thinking?

C'mon, people; ABBA songs may be slick, superficial, overproduced pop fluff, but they're designed to be belted at a level that matches the equally overwrought instrumentation and turns the final products into something so infectious they can't be ignored. These songs aren't designed to be merely sung; they must explode like cannon fire.

And as fun-fun-fun as this film adaptation is, for the most part, it simply never soars like even an average stage production with the good sense to have hired actual singers.

More's the pity, because if uninhibited enthusiasm were all that mattered, this cinematic Mamma Mia would be a five-star sensation.

Granted, uber-fans will love it regardless, but newbies are apt to wonder what all the fuss is about. Worse yet, I hate to think of this film introducing ABBA songs to the uninitiated, who certainly won't be encouraged to seek out the original albums.

But enough kvetching. I don't want to keep harping on the vocal disappointments, because in all other respects this film is quite entertaining.

The story, set in 1999 on the swooningly romantic Greek island of Kalokairi, takes place mostly at the Villa Donna, a remote and somewhat dilapidated Mediterranean hotel run by Donna, her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), and Sophie's fiancé, Sky (Dominic Cooper). Sophie and Sky are about to get married, and the young woman uses this event as an excuse to finally answer the big question in her life: her father's identity.

It seems that the now resolutely single Donna had a rather lively "summer of love" two decades earlier, and enjoyed the company of, in sequence, Sam, Harry and Bill, all of whom then passed out of her life. (A woman in a musical hasn't had this much fun since Bianca teased about "Tom, Dick or Harry" in Kiss Me, Kate!)

Sophie, having found her mother's diary, knows that one of these men must be her father, but has no idea which; she therefore invites all three to the wedding, hoping that face-to-face meetings will solve the mystery. All three accept, of course, if for different reasons.

Donna, meanwhile, has invited her own two best friends — Rosie and multiple divorcée Tanya (Christine Baranski) — who, also back in the day, shared the stage with her in a cabaret act dubbed "Donna and the Dynamos."

Everybody shows up at the same time, one day before the wedding, amid much embarrassment, ribald dialogue and spontaneous production numbers. The luxuriously sybaritic setting makes the earthy content good-natured and no more than playfully naughty (although the family-values crowd may not appreciate all the casual sexuality).

Although these characters can't exchange two sentences without then bursting into song — invariably accompanied by Kalokairi's willing residents, who make a sensational back-up chorus — that's the reason we're here in the first place. And really, one must admire how cleverly producer Judy Craymer and playwright Catherine Johnson — reprising their original stage roles here, along with director Phyllida Lloyd and choreographer Anthony Van Laast — sequenced a few dozen unrelated songs in a manner that actually does support this narrative, if occasionally erratically.

Sheer genius was required to blend playfully "young" numbers such as "Honey, Honey" and "Dancing Queen" with the "older," more reflective songs such as "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and "The Winner Takes It All," and have the result tell any sort of story at all.

And when an obligatory ABBA hit — such as "Super Trouper" — can't fit anywhere else, well, then, it's simply an excuse for a one-night-only reunion by Donna and the Dynamos.

Or the hilarious closing-credits sequence, echoing the original play's stage epilogue, when all eight characters pop up in wonderfully outrageous, 1980s-style glam rock outfits, to roar their way through "Waterloo" and "Dancing Queen." Brosnan, chest mostly bared and obviously not caring sod-all about his vocal limitations, hasn't had this much fun since his underwear strut across the hotel lobby in The Matador.

Speaking of costumes, Academy Award-winner Ann Roth is one of this film's many champions. She clads the Greek islanders in simple but tastefully colorful clothing, and also conveys a wealth of personality details with the outfits worn by Brosnan, Firth and Skarsgård when they first arrive on Kalokairi.

Later in the story, as the action gets more flamboyant, the clothing becomes progressively more vibrant ... and, no question, the glam rock suits are to die for.

Van Laast's choreography is clever, creative and frequently quite funny; he clearly relished this opportunity to "open up" the dance numbers, to take advantage of the island setting. The pre-bachelor party sequence — as the male chorus interrupts Sky and Sophie's intimate "Lay All Your Love on Me" for a kick-step number on a dock, while wearing swim fins! — is particularly droll.

Everybody in the cast gives 110 percent; even Baranski, also not much of a singer, gets impressive juice out of her vamp number ("Does Your Mother Know") with the island's young men.

Which — and let me mention this as delicately as possible — brings up the uncomfortable issue of age. Sophie is a giddy 20-year-old, and Seyfried is adorable in the role; her mother, and all the other "adult" characters, should be roughly 20 years her senior ... or, at the most, in their mid-40s. But Streep, Brosnan, Walters and all the rest are in their mid to late 50s, and — sorry, folks — that's simply too old for these parts.

I won't say it's uncomfortable; actually, it makes Baranski's vamp number even funnier. It just feels (again!) like misguided casting, along the lines of the failure to use performers better trained as singers.

These issues aside, though, Mamma Mia is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, and you'll find it hard not to stomp your feet in time to the music, as my Constant Companion did Tuesday evening. Last year's Hairspray seems to have begun a pattern of granting us one goofy, high-spirited musical during the summer season; Mamma Mia certainly continues the tradition.

I can't help wondering what's coming in 2009.

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