“If you see the wonder of a fairy tale, / You can take the future even if you fail.” When ABBA made this lyrical pronouncement back in 1978, it was part and parcel of the group’s world domination. Trite, inscrutable, and bouncy, ABBA’s own future lasted close to a decade (1972-’82). Born of a victory in a Swedish Eurovision Song Contest, the band produced a series of hits that combined boundless optimism and campy self-awareness. “When I know the time is right for me,” they sang, “I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream.”
Something like a stream fills the first frames of Mamma Mia!, the film based on the musical based on ABBA songs. Okay, so it’s not a stream but the ocean, carrying a boat to the gorgeous shores of Greek island Kalokairi. Here mamma Donna (Meryl Streep) keeps an inn, poorly performing, and has raised a daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is about to be married to hard-abbed Sky (Dominic Cooper). Yearning to know her never-seen father, the child has read her mother’s diary, discovered the man might be one of three, and invited the trio to the wedding, which, as the movie begins, is scheduled the next day. The wedding guests arrive, the identity crisis is vaguely probed and fixed, and the family, joyously reunited, sings and dances surrounded by exuberant Greeks who serve as a literal chorus.
The story, rather famously, is what it is: a grandly artificial gimmick devised by playwright Catherine Johnson in 1997, in which the awkwardly cobbled plot barely connects those still unfathomable songs, an exemplary jukebox musical. (Wildly if improbably popular, the show won Drama Desk Awards and Tony nominations, and is currently the 17th longest running Broadway musical ever.) On screen, courtesy of the stage director Phyllida Lloyd and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, the bright beachy backdrop provides precious little distraction from the desperately feeble concept. And the performers — most everyone game and frighteningly energetic — are reduced to caricature, saddled with silly antics and uncharming dialogue that fill in between the numbers.
As in all musicals, the numbers are the point, and so the filler’s torpor is predictable. Still, it’s sometimes painful to see the stars straining to sing and dance (though it’s trendy in today’s movie musicals, to cast non-singers in singing roles, it’s hard not to think of the singers who might benefit from the work, not to mention the delights they might bring to viewers who can’t afford Broadway tickets). Streep, for instance, scampers and writhes with something like abandon in her tomboyish overalls, her glowing tan and perfectly arranged “wild” blond hair indicating Donna’s stanch independence. But when Donna, who has apparently run the inn for years, lapses into panic at the thought of her former suitors’ arrival, it’s increasingly hard to follow the character “arc.” This especially when the camera hovers over her prone and gyrating form, as she seems to be dancing while lying down — whether this peculiar maneuver indicates her zaniness, her apprehension, or her exhaustion remains unclear.
If Streep mostly conquers such bizarre choreography as if by will alone, her costars fare less well. Donna’s best friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) provide evidence of Donna’s girlishness (squeals and giggles) and what might be termed extreme broad comedy (mugging, flirting with island boys, and a version of “Dancing Queen” that features hairdryers as mics, faux cocks, and Elvis drag). Sophie has two confidantes as well (Rachel McDowall as Lisa, Ashley Lilley as Ali), underlining the similarities between mother and daughter, and supplying supportive “ooh-oohs” when she sings about secretly reading Donna’s diary.
This number, “Honey, Honey,” also occasions the flashbacks to Donna’s youth that introduce the men in headbands and bellbottoms. (The timeline is never quite clear: if Donna was living with her own mother when she conceived the 20ish Sophie, that would mean Streep is either playing someone who is now 38ish or Donna was 30something when living with her mother.) They embody a range of options for Donna then and Sophie now: executive Sam (Pierce Brosnan) and banker Harry (Colin Firth) meet at a missed ferry and take a ride to the island from adventurer Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), who comes with his own boat. Though they don’t know each other, they bond quickly, as supporting males are wont to do, then proceed to remember their nights with Donna while imagining themselves as dads for Sophie.
Fortunately their qualifications for good fatherhood don’t include singing, as their efforts to carry tunes are mostly embarrassing (Brosnan’s especially). Instead, each spends some quality montagey time with the girl (during an afternoon on Bill’s boat, compressed into two minutes of smiling faces and pretty backdrops), so they appear worthy parents despite the fact they didn’t know she existed for nearly two decades. Her determination to know her father troubles Sky briefly, and he complains that she hasn’t told him of her scheme to assemble the potential dads for the wedding, suggesting she’s demanded the wedding only to be able to invite them.
Though he forgets his worry soon enough, the questions of partners’ responsibility, truthfulness, and dedication to one another are perennial in movie musicals. Here the dominant couple is Sophie and her Mamma. Even if Sky doesn’t recognize his own irrelevance to their story, the camera repeatedly frames mother and daughter as mirror images, as their matching hair and complexions insinuates their repetitions. That neither is quite so independent as she imagines, that both find true contentment in romantic hetero coupling, is pretty much ordained by the genre they inhabit. No matter your feelings about ABBA then or now, the group knew back then that they were campy and odd, that their appeal was a function of their abstraction and their excess (or they pretended to know, to the same effect). The more literal, more obviously strained Mamma Mia! is considerably less enchanting.