Once it gets past its high-pitched squeals of estrogen-fueled excitement in the opening sequences, director Phyllida Lloyd’s screen adaptation of the popular Broadway play based on ABBA songs, settles into a harmonically pleasing musical comedy set amid the extraordinary beauty of the Greek isle of Skopelos. Former 80s’ girl-trio singer Donna (exquisitely played by the ever-surprising Meryl Streep) has single-handedly raised her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) on the island where the two operate a rundown hotel villa. On the eve of her marriage to local hunk Sky (Dominic Cooper), Sophie has used information she culled from her mom’s old diary to invite Donna’s three former boyfriends to the wedding in the hope of discovering the identity of her unknown father. Stellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth do the honors as the trio of possible dads, and their arrival times well with that of Donna’s cherished band pals Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). Mamma Mia! The Movie is tilted toward the play’s target audience of middle aged to elderly members, but that’s not to say there isn’t plenty of entertainment to be had for everyone else in this pop-tinged travelogue of Grecian opulence.
The biggest part of any director’s job is casting. It’s a dirty little secret that all the directing experience in the world can’t succeed without the right counterbalance of actors, conscious of the style and subtext of the material. To that end, renowned opera director Phyllida Lloyd makes her foray into feature film with the blessing of a perfectly balanced cast pitted with, and against, type so that each serves to ballast a far-fetched narrative in need of every bit of grounding it can get. Loosely constructed from the plot template for the 1968 romantic comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, Mamma Mia! artificially shoehorns more than 15 ABBA songs into hit-or-miss plot point set pieces that give background on the spotlighted characters. It’s a carousel approach that refreshes the movie every five minutes with infectious joy and exposition.
Dressed in high-water overalls and flimsy deck shoes, Meryl Streep is the ultimate ex-patriot matriarch living an idyllic existence with her sun-kissed daughter. Streep’s opening number “Money, Money, Money” announces Donna’s need for a man of means and establishes her no make-up approach to the woman at the eye of an emotional whirlwind that we already know will end well. It’s Meryl Streep making musical theater look not only easy, but also natural to a fault. With Streep’s famed glamour kept peacefully at bay, the film makes way for the unconventional casting of character actors Christine Baranski and Julie Walters to shine. The three women tear into an inevitable rendition of “Dancing Queen” that works all the better for the credible chemistry between them as they sing about past glories with Donna as their center of attention.
The lavish beauty of glistening Mediterranean blue water beneath majestic hilltops is barely a distraction during Donna’s climatic singing of “The Winner Takes It All” to the long-suffering Sam (Pierce Brosnan) as he does the math on their missed opportunities for romance and happiness. Brosnan’s palpable discomfort with singing and dancing, supports his character’s sense of displacement, and mirrors Streep’s doughty embrace of Donna as a strong-willed woman without an ounce of artifice, save her constant need to break into song.
From its imaginative choreography and faux retro music production mode, Mamma Mia! The Movie is an explosion of pop sensibilities in a movie that makes lip-syncing look a far-sight better than anything on American Idol. If there’s anything Meryl Streep can’t do on film, we haven’t seen it yet. MTW