"...zestful, sunshine-drenched, toe-tapping camp..."

The All Singing, All Dancing Earworm

(072408) Rather than do a tribute show with imposters in ’70s costumes or a musical revue featuring the songs of Abba, that Swedish pop group whose hits include “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo” and “Mamma Mia,” producer Judy Craymer hired playwright Catherine Johnson to shape a story that would work alongside Abba songs. The result was Mamma Mia!, which opened in 1999 at London’s Prince Edward Theatre. The Abba musical subsequently became a worldwide hit. Now there’s Mamma Mia! The Movie. British theater and opera director Phyllida Lloyd, director of the original London production, expands the stage musical through location shooting in Greece, most of it on the island of Skopelos.

In case you’re not among the 30 million people who’ve seen Mamma Mia! on the stage, the show’s plot revolves around 20-year-old Sophie and her strong-willed single mom, Donna. Sophie dreams of meeting the father she never knew. She invites three men whom she suspects of being her father to her wedding, to be held on the Greek island of Kalokairi, where her mother runs a crumbling hotel that’s perched above the sparkling blue sea. The scene is ripe for conflict, not to mention farce.

Meryl Streep heads the cast as the fiercely independent Donna, the woman whose romantic adventures of two decades led to this mess. Even amidst the fluffy material that is Mamma Mia!, Streep flashes her Oscar-winning talent in some moving scenes. She also sings and dances up a storm. Pierce Brosnan, playing Sam, one of Sophie’s three possible dads, sings noticeably less well than Streep and other cast members. That can be a distraction, but the actor otherwise fills the role of the long-gone-lover who’s suddenly back in Donna’s reluctant sights. Brosnan also runs with the movie’s frequently loopy spirit. The same goes for the other prospective dads, Colin Firth as stick-in-the-mud Harry and Stellan Skarsgård as writer-adventurer Bill. As for Donna’s wedding guest girlfriends, the game Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are mostly in it for laughs and lots of singing and dancing. Mamma Mia! begins badly as Donna and her girlfriends and Sophie and her girlfriends engage in orgies of squealing, pre-wedding reunions. But once the squealing ends, the director and cast tell the story and sing the hook- and melody-filled pop gems that made the stage musical a hit. True to the Mediterranean location, Greek choruses frequently get in the act.

Mamma Mia! looks a bit rushed and sloppy. It’s not elegant in the manner of classic MGM musicals. And if there are any Fred Astaire's or Gene Kelly's or Cyd Charisse's out there, they’re not in this movie. But the big-screen Mamma Mia! rises above through an A-list leading lady and, like its stage-musical predecessor, skillful exploitation of the fun and pathos inherent in Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ enduring music. "Mamma Mia!" feels thrown together, as if the film were cobbled from the rehearsal footage rather than the best possible takes. With threadbare production values and glaringly artificial sets, the film feels, at times, like a Bollywood indie. Half of "Mamma Mia!" is utterly devoid of directional flourish, while the other half lays it on so thick the audience is nearly smothered to death.

Oddly, "Mamma Mia!" works well despite its technical flaws. The three women who created the worldwide smash-stage-hit production - writer Catherine Johnson, producer Judy Craymer and director Phyllida Lloyd - reprise their roles in adapting this joyful, ecstatic story for the big screen. This is zestful, sunshine-drenched, toe-tapping camp, and I defy anyone not to sing along to melodies as warm and familiar as these. If there's a group that has produced more singable, infectiously fun music than the Swedish super group ABBA, I don't know of them. Little surprise, Streep gives a bracing, full-throated performance, and, as she proved in "
Prarie Home Companion," she really can sing. Too bad the same cannot be said for Pierce Brosnan. When the former James Bond opens his mouth in song, the audience opens theirs in derisive laughter. "Mamma Mia!" is the sparkling yin to "The Dark Knight's" bleak yang. For all its glaring cinematic faults, the cast and crew of "Mamma Mia!" have made the sort of movie that might just drive you from your theater seat and into an impromptu conga line.

Directed by:    Phyllida Lloyd
Written by:    Screenplay by Catherine Johnson, based on her
 musical book and stage play, Adapted from the
 music of ABBA
Starring:    Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried
Released:    071608 (USA)
Length:    108 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for some sex-related comments.

MAMMA MIA © 2008 Universal Pictures Distribution
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