Wednesday, July 16, 2008

MAMMA MIA!

A Supposedly Fun Film I'll Never See Again

MAMMA MIA is a musical play that takes the songs of ABBA and plugs them into a story line. Simple enough, right? The story isn't much: a Girl lives on a Greek Island with her Mother. The Girl wants to marry her Shirtless Boyfriend, but wants her Father to attend the wedding. She doesn't know who her Father is, because her Mother isn't entirely sure who the Father was. So the Girl, unbeknownst to her Mother, sends invitations to the three most likely candidates, and FUN ensues. That's the plan, anyway. On Broadway, a certain degree of FUN did ensue. The show was mostly charming, it didn't take itself too terribly seriously (one poor actor had to sing ABBA's song SOS as if it was a serious relationship song and came off looking rather foolish) but hey it was over mostly painlessly. I didn't want to hunt down and kill everyone associated with it. And compared with others that have come since, like GOOD VIBRATIONS, MAMMA MIA comes off like PRIVATE LIVES.
So now there's a movie, with Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard. A really good cast, by any standard. So what goes wrong?

The material is so incredibly feather light that everybody seems to work harder than they've ever worked before to keep it light. The vastly over-qualified cast seems so afraid of coming off as too good for the movie that they all over compensate: they play the FUN with a seriousness that quashes the fun entirely, and the SERIOUS moments are played with a level of honesty that the material just can't bear. The fun-induced panic that hovers around Meryl Streep is particularly oppressive: America's Dowager Actress Goddess lays it on like a CEO at an office picnic glad-handing the janitors. She hasn't worked this hard since SOPHIE'S CHOICE. And nobody else fares any better: the usually magnificent Julie Walters at one point steps into a small dinghy, and of course falls off into the water, but the process by which she loses her balance and falls in is so blatant and overdone that any slight amusement I might feel is quickly stifled. It becomes kind of a metaphor for the entire film: what should be effortless as falling off a boat becomes labored and obvious, too much damn work.

I could go on about the disparity between the obvious location shooting and the obviously studio-shot scenes, and Pierce Brosnan's really appalling attempts at singing (a male Marni Nixon was direly needed here). But I won't bother. I feel like I'm kicking a puppy here. An obnoxiously overcute puppy.

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