Yesterday, PJ and I saw Mamma Mia! starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, and Dominic Cooper. We were really looking forward to seeing it, since we love Streep and the trailer looks fun. We’ve never seen the stage musical, so we didn’t really know what to expect, however.
Streep plays Donna, who manages a crumbling hotel on a small Greek Island. Her daughter Sophie (Seyfried) is about to get married to Sky (Cooper), but Sophie would like to know who her father is before she marries. There are three possibilities, so she invites all three to the wedding on the (mistaken) belief that she will sense which one is her father as soon as she sees him. When they arrive and Sophie of course has no idea which one is it, mayhem ensues.
Meanwhile, Donna, the former lead singer of a girl group, is having a reunion with her friends and backup singers, played by Walters and Baranski. In between bits of the plot, all of the characters break out in Abba songs, which provide the soundtrack to their thoughts and emotions.
On the whole, this is a confectionery fantasy that buoyantly ignores reality, common sense, and the vocal limitations of some of its stars. I enjoyed it, but PJ wasn’t quite as entertained as I was.
First off, Streep is great. Her voice is surprisingly strong, but the overall concept is not that she or any of the other actors are perfect singers. Instead, I think we’re meant to see their singing as more normal, rawer than “professional.” There are moments when Streep sound very raw and normal, but then she switches over to a more powerful, professional sound that parallels her character’s emotional state, often from raw and lacking self confidence to buoyant and more assured. Her best number is a great version of “The Winner Takes It All.”
Baranski also gets to shine when she sings “Does Your Mother Know” to a young man trying to seduce her. I thought it was great to see her in such a great part again.
I also liked the two young leads. Seyfried is well cast as the idealistic Sophie, and Dominic Cooper is so beautiful that I barely remember anything else about any scene he was in. He’s wonderful to look at, and I think he was a good singer too–but I’ll have to review the soundtrack to make sure.
There are three major weaknesses in the film, however. Brosnan simply cannot sing. It really does make me wonder why he was cast in this film. It was not so much unpleasant as it was just really awkward. I felt bad for him straining and struggling with his two numbers, both of which are integral to the movie.
More importantly, all of the older actors are almost 20 years too old for their parts. I understand that once they cast Streep they decided to cast actors in her peer group, but it really makes the film’s history, backstory, and characterization incoherent and problematic. You start thinking about what year the film is set, how old Donna was when she had Sophie, if there is any coherent backstory that can explain all the tidbits of information we are presented. Ultimately, it leaves you unable to think about anything happening in the film, because as soon as you do the plot and character motivations start to fall apart. But it’s a fantasy more than a documentary, so I’m willing to forgive some of this messiness, including both Brosnan’s singing and the age problem.
What’s more difficult to overlook is Phyllida Lloyd‘s direction. It too seems incoherent. She doesn’t seem to have decided whether the singing parts are fantasy sequences or part of “real Life” for the characters. I think she should have camped it up and gone even more for the fantasy. What works on stage — and the assumption that your audience will accept incoherence for musical fun — doesn’t always work on screen. Perhaps in a more experienced director’s hands this would have been a much better film.
Despite these problems, I’m a sucker for Streep and for musicals. Put the two together and I’m thoroughly entertained. Mamma Mia! is obviously not a great movie, but Streep is wonderful and that’s enough for me.