The first act of Mamma Mia! practically kills the entire thing. The goofy proposition of a musical set to ABBA songs engenders a lot of curiosity (one starring Meryl Streep provokes a lot more), but the first act–when it tries to be a narrative–is a disaster. The attempts at narrative and summary storytelling are atrocious. The first act would have been more successful if the movie had just started by playing the trailer to establish itself. There’s also the problem with Amanda Seyfried, who’s awful when the story centers around her. Luckily, it’s only for that first act. Later on, when Seyfried’s supporting, she’s better.
The movie starts getting entertaining–and Mamma Mia! is nothing but entertaining, the joke of it being the presence of Streep and Pierce Brosnan, both of whom are established, undeniable movie stars. It’s fun watching them have fun (I suppose Mamma Mia! is a low rent Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen as it were). Anyway, it gets entertaining when Julie Walters and Christine Baranski arrive. Once the film gets those two and Streep together, it’s a lot of fun. Baranski’s the only cast member who I’d expect to see in Mamma Mia! Watching Julie Walters in the movie is almost more disconcerting than seeing Streep in it.
I’m unfamiliar with modern musicals, so I don’t know if this “style” is the norm, but Mamma Mia! is absurd as one of the Muppet movies. It tries for humor in the same way (a line of the song leads to some amusing, literal sight gag), which is a lot different than presenting a narrative set to music. The failed first act never established itself as acknowledging its absurdity, something Seyfried’s ever-pensive performance doesn’t help.
At times with Streep and Brosnan–mostly with Streep, because Brosnan seems perfectly aware his presence in the film is silly and can’t stop grinning–there’s the implication the movie’s format is wasting its cast. Maybe Streep should have made a movie with Brosnan about middle-aged romance or one with Seyfried (well, not Seyfried, but some other young actress) about letting go of an about-to-be married daughter. But then Streep sings and brings her superior acting ability to it. Streep’s not a good singer (but better than I would have thought, ABBA songs lend themselves to enthusiasm over ability), but her performance makes it not matter. It makes the super-pop songs all of a sudden of the greatest human import. All because of Streep.
The rest of the cast is fine. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård get the heave-ho once the focus shifts from Seyfried to Streep but it’s hard to miss them. Seeing Pierce Brosnan break out into song–he seems to be trying to turn ABBA into Irish folk songs–obscures their absence. Mamma Mia! is one of the first times it becomes clear what a good movie star Brosnan has turned into–quite a turnaround for someone who was doing direct-to-cable movies twenty years ago.
The direction–which is essentially a string of music videos strung together–is occasionally annoying, as is the digitally enhanced cinematography. But it’s a fine enough hour and forty minutes… with the last number making any problems more than worth enduring.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd; written by Catherine Johnson, based on her original musical book, originally conceived by Judy Craymer based on the songs of ABBA; director of photography, Haris Zambarloukos; edited by Lesley Walker; music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, some songs with Stig Anderson; production designer, Maria Djurkovic; produced by Craymer and Gary Goetzman; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Meryl Streep (Donna), Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Colin Firth (Harry), Stellan Skarsgård (Bill), Julie Walters (Rosie), Dominic Cooper (Sky), Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) and Christine Baranski (Tanya).