Meryl Streep fans and ABBA fans can at least count on those two components firing on all cylinders in this adaptation of the Broadway smash. Everyone else, though, may be forced to rummage through the debris that constitutes the rest of the picture to find anything worth salvaging.
As a closeted ABBA fan and not-so-closeted Meryl Streep fan, count me among those thrilled to watch the great actress cut loose with an armful of catchy hit singles. Anybody who saw her terrific, Oscar-nominated performance in 1990's Postcards from the Edge knows she can belt out a tune (she also tackled some songs in A Prairie Home Companion), and here she's aptly cast as Donna, a former singer raising her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) at her hotel property located on a lovely Greek island. Sophie's about to get married to hunky Sky (dull Dominic Cooper), but first she's determined to learn the identity of her father. After sneaking a peek at her mom's old diary, Sophie invites to her wedding the three men who all had carnal relations with her mom two decades earlier, hoping to ascertain which one is actually daddy dearest.
The three men are suave Sam (Pierce Brosnan), uptight Harry (Colin Firth) and rascally Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and as long as the actors essaying the roles stick to walking and talking, they're fun to watch. But whenever one of them is called upon to sing, be prepared to duck and cover as their aural ineptitude bombards our eardrums (Brosnan especially looks physically pained choking out the lyrics, as if he's being subjected to a prostate exam just outside of the camera's eye).
In fact, Streep is one of only two people who can apparently hold a note in this film. The other is Broadway star Christine Baranski, but her musical appeal is negated by the fact that she's insufferable as Donna's perpetually horny friend Tanya. Sex and the City bashers, take note: Her vamping makes Kim Cattrall's Samantha look like Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins by comparison. Equally annoying is Julie Walters (best known these days as Ron Weasley's movie mom) as Donna's other BFF, Rosie. It's a tragedy that the classic "Dancing Queen" is wasted on Tanya and Rosie, as their hammy delivery of the tune during the film renders it the equivalent of two sets of nails competing against each other on a blackboard (luckily, Streep shows up to salvage the latter verses and transform the tune into a Girl Power anthem).
Director Phyllida Lloyd helmed Mamma Mia! on stage, and bringing her to the screen as part of the package deal was the worst thing that could have happened to this production. There's no reason this motion picture couldn't contain all the effulgence and expertise of other musical adaptations like Hairspray and Chicago, but Lloyd appears to be so blissfully ignorant of the dynamics of moviemaking that, aside from the songs themselves, there's little joy to be found in the musical numbers. The clumsy camerawork, editing and staging all diminish rather than enhance the perceived showstoppers, and the choreography ranks among the most dreadful I've ever witnessed in a big-budget musical -- especially check out the dance steps of the hunky boys on the pier and tell me if a sixth grade theater class couldn't have produced the same herky-jerky moves for their annual fundraising musical held in the school gym.
Mamma Mia! registers as the biggest disappointment of the summer movie season, though that probably won't stop it from raking in plenty of (to lift an ABBA song title) "Money, Money, Money" at the box office. Meanwhile, one of last year's best films, the Beatles-catalogue musical Across the Universe, failed to find much of an audience during its theatrical run. Them's the breaks in this business, of course, but these results nevertheless strike me as decidedly off-key.