‘Mamma’ Mangled

2008-07-18 (General release)

When it arrives in theaters tomorrow (18 July), Mamma Mia! will probably go down as one of the biggest hits of Summer 2008. It has all the elements that make for a bold box office champion – previous recognition factor, a soundtrack to die for, and a cast that crosses over many demographical lines. Still, if the movie only manages to make a small impression, or fails to fully realize its clear commercial aims, there will be one reason and one reason only for its collapse – and her name is Phyllida Lloyd. A noted UK director, specializing in theater, this is her first major motion picture, and it shows. Though she was responsible for the staging of Mamma Mia! when it played London’s West End, whatever skill she had along the boards really didn’t translate here. This is perhaps the worst directing job ever for an otherwise fun major motion picture (albeit one not helmed by someone named Boll or Ratner). In four basic film categories, Ms. Lloyd underperforms miserably. She turns a potential classic into a merely viable entertainment. Let’s being with:

Setting, Location, and Atmosphere

The movie, as in the stage musical, is set on an enchanted Greek island that is supposed to possess a kind of magical whimsy that draws lovers to their soul mates. It’s also the proposed home of the legendary Fountain of Aphrodite, a source of everlasting potable passion. Lloyd begins our invitation to the locale with a lovely shot – our lead Amanda Seyfried, singing “I Have a Dream” as a topaz blue sunset engulfs the atoll. We are then introduced to a random selection of shots that fail miserably to establish the rest of the surroundings. It’s all part of a plan that this director has for avoiding anything remotely establishing and certain. When we are introduced to Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, and Pierce Brosnan, (Seyfried’s three “fathers”) they too live in poorly defined areas and circumstances which require a kind of cinematic judicial notice to comprehend. Perhaps it’s all knowledge we don’t need, but when you’re about to have characters randomly burst into song, anything that can ground us definitely helps.

From this point on, Lloyd really destroys the ambience. While she has an entire Mediterranean backdrop to work with, she insists upon using fake sets, greenscreen vistas, and some incredibly awkward staging to realize her aims. “Mamma Mia” takes place on an old goat hut rooftop, while “Dancing Queen” moves from soundstage to seaside in a series of severe jump cuts. An ocean romp between Seyfried and her Brit boy toy Dominic Cooper is interrupted by a group of hunky scuba divers who proceed to dance like stand-ins from Spamalot. Lloyd may argue that it’s all part of a way of creating movie magic and emotion, but we’re so desperate to connect with this material that her hamfisted hackwork makes us angry. We want a vision of something otherworldly and ethereal, a fuzzy bubble blissfulness where love is illustrated as a particular moment and place. Instead, we’re so busy getting our bearings that we never fully understand where we are, and why it casts such a schizophrenic pall over everything.

Character Interaction and Clarification

Unless you walk in with a working knowledge of the stage musical, there is very little personal perspective offered by this director. She believes in the shorthand version of characterization, giving us meaningless shot snippets (Firth as stuffed shirt, Skarsgård as beery bohemian, Streep as long suffering hippie chick) where a line of dialogue or single scene conversation would have sufficed. This is particularly important when the third act ‘twists’ start happening. Firth finds out that he’s gay, Seyfried discovers that maybe she is racing to the altar to avoid her mother’s disapproval, and Streep shifts from independent icon ex-rocker to desperate and dateless. When she sings “The Winner Takes It All”, it stands as a moment of personal reflection and self-sacrificing triumph. To suddenly go domestic seems surreal. But that’s because Lloyd has failed to set us up for such a reveal. It’s the same with Firth. He has a very weird conversation with Skarsgård that’s supposed to be one of those clueless male mix-ups where neither gent fully comprehends what the other is saying. Instead, it feels like an incomplete experiment from a screenwriter’s work in progress.

Part of the reason musicals work is through our ability to identify with the characters. Seyfried’s desire to know her onscreen dad instantly draws us in. It’s a wonderfully universal conceit. But along the way, Lloyd and Mamma Mia! turn the need very inward. Toward the end, it’s so frustratingly insular that we’re no longer sure if the man’s identity really matters (the narrative feels the same way). It’s even worse from Streep’s point of view. While it is never clearly explained, her past with these men seems to throw her for an unspecified loop. Not only is their presence perplexing, but when we learn that she had romantic liaisons with all of them (Brosnan’s being the most intense), her behavior goes from quirky to concerning. What exactly is her problem, and why is this supposedly empathetic Earth mother unable to speak frankly with her own child? Of course, this is a musical, some will say, we don’t need such in-depth dissections. But much of the missing pieces here are Lloyd’s fault, the direct result of filmmaking choices that never once draw us into these people’s world.

Narrative Drive

Granted, this is a clothesline plotline, a connect-the-dots conceit in which certain songs must stand for certain story points. Catherine Johnson deserves a lot of credit for finding a way – awkward or not – of combining all these tracks. Sure, there are clunky transitions, and sometimes one wonders if ABBA likes the implication of what the music is illustrating (as in Christine Baranski’s cougar-come on as part of “Does Your Mother Know?”). But as long as we can follow the various narrative strands, we should easily be able to decipher what’s going on. Sadly, Lloyd’s limits behind the lens once again come to the fore as she struggles to make sense of this often jarring jumble. Nothing is set up contextually – Streep’s financial woes, Cooper’s actual career path, what any of the potential Dad’s really do for a living, the ex-rock star situation, the back-up singers’ circumstance, the reason for all the disgruntled Greeks. Instead, Lloyd just lays it out there, thinking we’re clever enough (or perhaps, adequately doped up on Swedish pop perfection) to care. It shows the inherent laziness – and lack of previous big screen skill – this director applies.

Even worse, the movie sacrifices the men for more girl-oriented goading. Fans of the original show will clearly miss “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (a planned highlight for Brosnan’s character) and an interchange between Seyfried and Skarsgård to “The Name of the Game”. While it may have been a matter of running time, or perhaps inappropriate casting (why bring on big names if they can’t carry even the smallest amount of a tune?), it shows that Lloyd is not willing to take a risk. She’s so unsure of how to deal with the obvious material that something a little more complicated simply gets extricated. The ending is even changed, moving “Take a Chance on Me” from a pre-wedding placement to a last act celebration of middle aged matron desperation. Thanks to this cobbled together approach, equally marred by a visual acumen that can best be described as slipshod, Mamma Mia! must get by on ABBA and actors only. Sometimes it succeeds. At other instances, Lloyd also lets them down.

Production Numbers and Musical Interludes

This is perhaps the biggest problem with Mamma Mia! in general, something that most big screen musicals – jukebox based or original – strive to overcome. ABBA wrote some undeniable gems, ear worms that won’t leave your brain even after decades of the most dedicated efforts to purposefully purge same. They are so bright and bubbly, so pert and effervescent that they could almost carry the film by themselves. Sadly, they almost have to. Lloyd fails to fully understand how to bring song and dance to film, instead relying almost exclusively on a mob mentality to illustrate her tunes. Take the party number “Voulez-Vous”. The direction is mind-numbingly awful, the camera swirling around and cross cutting in such a randomized fashion that, what should feel exciting becomes chaotic and disjointed. It’s something that happens with other group entries like “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “Money, Money, Money”. There is such confusion to what Lloyd puts before audiences that any enjoyment they get must be inferred from the sonic situations in play.

The one-on-one moments are a tad better. “Slipping Through My Fingers” has a nice mother/daughter vibe, though the lack of actual singing by Streep and Seyfried seems an odd choice for a musical. After all, vocalizing (even in post-production lip sync) is part of the purpose here. Going montage makes no sense. Similarly, there are other instances when the actors stop moving their mouths, even as their rendition of the lyrics come pouring out of the speakers. Perhaps the biggest offense occurs at the film’s climax, when Streep gives Brosnan a last chance brush off with “The Winner Takes It All”. This is her big ballad moment, a culmination of everything the character has committed to and stands for. And with an actress as capable as Streep at the helm, it should floor us. Lloyd, instead, turns this into a cockeyed carousel of mixed emotions, her whirling dervish lens never settling on the action long enough to let us in on the song’s significance. It just keeps dipping and diving around the actors, removing any chance that we might witness something akin to an actual performance. Luckily, Streep’s gestures save it in the end, ensuring that this will be one director who does not ruin her work through inexperience and incompetence.

It’s nothing personal on Ms. Lloyd. There is no denying her work in theater, but her limited TV time clearly did not prepare her for the challenge of making this movie. For those still convinced that she was the proper choice for this project, just take this impromptu survey – who would have done a better job here, Phyllida Lloyd, or Adam Shankman (the man behind last year’s equally buoyant Hairspray)? Or imagine if Rob Marshall (Chicago, the upcoming Nine) had been put in charge. Wouldn’t this film have functioned a whole lot better had someone like Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors), Baz Lurhmann (Moulin Rouge!), or even Julie Taymor (whose Across the Universe tried the same thing with The Beatles). In a medium that relies on the convergence of many competing creative elements, Mamma Mia! could have been a nuclear powered pixie stick, so satisfyingly sweet that we become instantly addicted to its comfort food qualities. Instead, it’s a half-success, stunted by someone who should have never been given a seat behind the camera in the first place.