Thursday, July 24, 2008

DA BOMB: MAMMA MIA!, THE MOVIE



Allow me some admissions right up front: I’ve always loved ABBA’s “S.O.S.,” one of the most infectious, insidiously hummable pop hits of the ‘70s. I find “Knowing Me, Knowing You” a pleasant-enough concoction. Why, even after Muriel’s Wedding I still don’t mind hearing “Dancing Queen” when I come across it on the radio, or when one of my daughters insists on hearing it in the minivan CD player. The overdubbed vocals of that song (and most of their other hits) layered one on top of the other, sometimes in harmony, sometimes creating a synthetic chorus of two voices multiplied seemingly ad infinitum on the same line, lend themselves splendidly to warbled accompaniment in one’s shower or automobile. (The voices on the records themselves are often artless and unabashed enough to already seem like sing-alongs to songs on which the real lead vocalists have been banished, karaoke style.) And though I was never completely taken by ABBA’s brand of bombastic, phonetic-English disco machinery, I’ve never resented that they existed or that they have been such a consistent and bankable worldwide success. Until now, perhaps.

Mamma Mia, the movie version of the runaway stage cash cow in which a dozen-and-a-half or so ABBA songs are clumsily jerry-rigged and slotted into a flimsy plot revolving around a young girl who surreptitiously invites three of her mother’s former lovers, one of which may be her father, to her Greek island wedding, ought to test the resolve of anyone who ever held a tune like “Fernando” or “Honey Honey” dear. And the movie certainly ought to offend anyone who cares anything about the quality and enduring legacy of movie musicals. For it turns out that Mamma Mia is shockingly bad as both a musical and a movie. The big numbers are often girded with a near-subliminal chorus that sings along with the stars (the original ABBA recordings have been shelved) in order to beef up their tepid voices and provide sonic reassurance of the familiar ABBA-style vocals, while the cast and dancers cavort on the beaches and byways of this movie-fantasy Greek paradise guided by a cheerleading troupe’s idea of choreography. What’s worse, the songs don’t express anything about the characters or their feelings—they’re used to goose the audience, and the movie, with a specious sort of plasticized exuberance that the filmmakers (a term used very lightly here) hope will be easily mistaken for a good time. (The movie’s artifice is further blemished by memories of the other movie in 2008 to feature familiar and not-so-familiar rock and pop tunes successfully reinterpreted and given new meaning by unlikely voices, the flawed but moving documentary Young at Heart.)

Meanwhile the songs, stripped of the arid, slightly robotic production values which gave the original recordings their eerie energy, and put into the mouths of a cast of actors whose vocal talents range from thin, lovely fragility (Amanda Seyfried) to confidence (Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski) to ghastly ineptitude (Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters and just about everyone else, none of whom could find their way around a tune even with the assistance of the most advanced G.P.S. tracking system), are themselves exposed as goofy at best, but more often just gross, dumb and fatuous. And the actors fare even worse. Oliver Reed jack-hammering his way through Tommy at least had that movie’s stylish excess to help elaborate the pub-crawling creepiness of his vocal characterization. But first-time director Phyllida Lloyd, working from Catherine Johnson’s script (both are veterans of the original stage production), leaves folks like Streep and Brosnan, and Walters and Baranski and Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgaard twisting atonally in the Mediterreanean breeze. And she brings near-zero sense of filmmaking craft to bear on the tenuous connective tissue that passes for dramatic scenes in between each big musical fizzle. What are we to make of Streep’s character, the titular mamma who spends the first half hour of the movie reunited with her insufferable pals in gales of fake laughter, pouring on the forced high spirits of middle-age reclaiming lost youth? (This is the movie’s M.O. in a nutshell). The way this woman vacillates between excitement and distress and hysteria when she finds out those three men from her past have arrived for the wedding borders on split-personality psychosis. (The inconsistency is exacerbated by the performance of the chirpy title tune, which is shoehorned in between Streep’s fits of fretting and hand-wringing to produce yet another literally show-stopping sequence.) The Oscar-winner is so busy selling her character’s free spirit that she never bothers to ground her in a recognizable human scale of emotion—every note, both sung and spoken, is infused with a fine actor’s attempt to breathe some kind of life into this gossamer-thin conceit, but the end result is fussy, strained, overmodulated, and not just a little embarrassing.

The director “opens up” the stage show in every obvious, clunky way—characters spend a lot of time running along beaches and up steep pathways—but Lloyd never tailors the material for anything resembling the real world; everything is played as though the cast were projecting to a neighboring island dotted with fake trees. And the whole of the movie feels like someone’s shapeless home movies of an exotic holiday in which all sense of the location’s beauty is dumped (has the Greek coast ever before looked so nondescript and unappealing on film?) in favor of a grueling chronicle of the host’s every drunken moment of karaoke glory. (Like most booze-inspired public warbling, this movie would seem to require severe inebriation as a prerequisite for proper appreciation.)


But as lost as Lloyd is as a storyteller, she is equally clueless at staging music and dance. The big production numbers (“Dancing Queen, Does Your Mother Know?, Voulez-vous”) are bad enough—one gets the idea that the director’s input amounted to getting her cast hammered and telling them to just go out there and feel it, baby. But it’s those intimate ballads, back-loaded into the film’s second half, where Mamma Mia careens from the merely misconceived to the genuinely grotesque. The movie’s finest, most delicate, most convincing moment is the unadorned staging of “Slipping through My Fingers,” as Streep’s (Ma)Donna reluctantly helps her daughter Sophie (Seyfried) prepare in the moments before the wedding. Here Streep’s strenuous attempts at acting the song work because the effects—a plaintive glance, a bittersweet smile, a laugh-- are scaled down. They build the emotion of the moment rather than work against it. And the song, a relatively restrained, uncharacteristically delicate ballad, is a good showcase for the vocal talents of Streep and Seyfried, easily the best singers in the cast. Unfortunately, “Slipping through My Fingers” is preceded by Brosnan braying his way through “S.O.S.” (My head hung several times out of sheer embarrassment), so some of its potential power is diminished by the after-effects of the actor’s rummy, undisciplined tenor still ringing in the ears. Worse, however, is the fact that the genuine connection between Streep and Seyfried, a moment where the movie actually delivers on the examination of mother-daughter dynamics to which it has up to now only paid facile lip service, is undermined by what follows-- the absolute nadir in a musical already packed to the rafters with low blows. On the way to the picturesque hillside chapel Brosnan confronts Streep about their shared past, and Streep counters with “The Winner Takes It All,” in which she pushes her timid director aside (Lloyd seems plenty content to just flip the camera’s “on” switch and walk away) and overacts the already bombastic tune with a battery of grandstanding gestures and italicized, boldfaced sincerity that might make Ethel Merman blush. The “winner” here, as it turns out, is Brosnan, who had the good sense to keep far enough away from Streep during this number that he spends a goodly portion of it off-screen.

There’s no pleasure in denigrating an obvious disaster like Mamma Mia. But there’s even less pleasure to be had in sitting through it. I sincerely hoped this movie might be as much fun as was last summer’s Hairspray, a movie for which I had no expectations whatsoever. But where Hairspray’s every moment was suffused with the genuine giddy joy of performing, the cheerful enthusiasm on display in Mamma Mia couldn’t be more synthetic and predigested. I can absolutely believe that the stage show might feel completely different. The very fact of Mamma Mia’s existence under a proscenium automatically lends a degree of forgiving stylization to this gussied-up revue that is completely beyond Phyllida Lloyd as a film director—she displays absolutely no sense, moment to moment, of what makes a film work, what makes a film a film. My wife, in that way she has of summing up things succinctly (a quality which makes our co-existence pretty hilarious in itself), said Mamma Mia reminded her of nothing less than a wide-screen Mentos commercial run amok, and by God, that’s precisely what it feels like. As the post-wedding party winds down (don’t worry—I wouldn’t dream of revealing the movie’s shocking twist!), stunned and disillusioned by the whole experience, I welcomed the plaintive vibrato of Seyfried’s tender, unaffected voice as the ballad that began the movie seemed to now end it. Would that it were so. The end credits are underscored by Streep and gal pals doing the obligatory and frightening liquored-up-chicks-doing-“Dancing Queen”-in-gaudy-‘70s-costumes bit, followed by Brosnan and the other leathery boy toys joining them for “Waterloo,” both numbers punctuated by the most skin-crawling shattering of the fourth wall ever committed to film. If, after all this, you can still say you were entertained by Mamma Mia, then God bless and may you enjoy it countless times in the privacy of your own home on DVD. But I have to believe that any movie that invites comparison with Can’t Stop the Music, any movie that makes me wish even for a second that I was watching Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead, deserves my heartiest derision. Mamma Mia? Madre de dios!

21 comments:

pacheco said...

All I can say is that the experience of seeing this movie (at a free screening) was too painful for me personally to write a review for the film.

To make matters worst, I fear I was pretty much the only one in the screening who felt that way. The theater was packed with cheers and clapping and crazy laughter. Much like you, I hung my head throughout a lot of this movie.

The thing I find funny, though, is that even the "fans" in the audience who ate up every last minute of that movie with a spoon admitted how bad Brosnan was. How do I know? Most of the audience laughed when Brosnan sang (and no, it was not a scene that was intended to be funny). I really do like Brosnan in most films, but I'm...shocked at how badly that guy sings, and I'm blown away by the fact that he sings in multiple songs throughout the movie!

I looked forward to hearing "Take a Chance On Me" for the entire film, only to be rewarded with such a sloppy, poorly sung, barely coherent rendition. For me, the one bearable element of the film was Seyfried, who has really won me over with her work on the most recent season of Big Love. But even she and her voice couldn't do...anything to help this thing.

As someone else said, the image of Meryl Streep wailing out on an air guitar is just burned in my brain. I can't help but shake my head in amazement.

bill said...

So, it's really good? We should all go see it?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Well, apparently it's doing just fine at the domestic box-office, and is a huge hit overseas as well, so... yes, you should see it. Over and over again. Understand, you can't stop the music, especially not "The Winner Takes It All."

bill said...

I've heard that the music cannot be stopped. Sounds kind of dangerous.

By the way, Dennis, your wife's "Mentos" line is spot-on, at least from what I can see from the previews. It's almost as though the filmmakers were consciously paying homage to those commercials.

Ed Howard said...

Your wife is a funny, funny woman. What a great line! I won't be subjecting myself to this one, but your review was incredibly entertaining anyway. There's nothing better than an entertaining, detailed slam of a movie I have no intention of seeing myself.

Sharon said...

I enjoyed it. So sue me! ;-)

bill said...

Very well: I sue you!

Murray said...

LOL!!! Boy you sure got Karen all worked up. Talk about polar opposites. Karen says--------------------------------------------------! I am not going to repeat it. ROTFLMAO!!!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Murray: ROTFLMAO? Wow, I'm gonna have to think about that one! Is that an acronym for what she said? (Remember, I didn't know what MILF stood for until about three years ago...) Please ask Karen to jump in here and fight her own battles! :)

Ed, I sure do agree about my wife. She said everything that was important to say in about five words, and with a sharp wit as well.

No, seriously, I certainly don't begrudge anyone their enjoyment of anything that is specifically designed to be entertaining-- if it works for you, what can I say? The Name of the Game (please forgive me) isn't trying to convince anyone of my point of view on Mamma Mia or anything else, but instead to be sure that I accurately describe the movie and my own reactions to it in a way that sheds some light on both of those things. Just as in the case of certain other summer movies with rabid fan bases, I welcome any discussion that is pitched in the same spirit. Whether or not you agree, I just want the review to be worth spending the time it takes for you to read it.

Patty also said she thought Colin Firth sounded like a depressed Peter Noone, which I also thought was pretty funny and apt, though honestly, I thought his voice, though shaky, was much more pleasant than some of the others that I can't seem to get out of my head!

Sharon: The lawsuit is under way! By the way (and this is really gonna get me in trouble), didn't you also like The Shawshank Redemption?

I'm gonna go hide now...

Paul Matwychuk said...

What a bizarre, isolating experience it was to watch this movie in a packed theatre last Friday with an audience that loved every minute of it. Rarely have I seen a movie get such an enthusiastic crowd response—people were literally hooting with laughter at every stale, pandering slapstick gag, and cheering every cornball bit of staging. It's obnoxious to claim that your taste is superior to that of "the masses" and I try never to look down my nose at other people's cultural tastes... but I was genuinely amazed (and a little depressed) to see a phony movie like this, made with so little wit or artistry or sophistication, be rewarded with such applause.

I love musicals, and I can put up with a lot of song-and-dance hokum, and like you, Dennis, I was hoping that MAMMA MIA! would have some of the energy and high spirits and the sheer joy of performing that you find in HAIRSPRAY, but I got no pleasure out of this thing at all.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Paul, during those end credits I thought surely the only possible response would have been the sound of crickets chirping, if only to drown out the shrieking going on in my head. But this won't be the last time my idea of what constitutes a transporting experience does not gibe with that of the general public.

And like you, I wouldn't want anyone to get the idea that I don't like musicals or even "chick flicks." I certainly don't dig what gets fobbed off on this demographic in the guise of romantic comedy 90% of the time (please, no more McCounnaughey/Hudson pairings, please), but I genuine liked While You Were Sleeping and much of Where the Heart Is (no match for the wild and weird Boorman film of the same name, true, but Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd did good work here) for just two examples.

And as for musicals, well, Singin' in the Rain, The Gang's All Here, Fiddler on the Roof, Top Hat, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Meet Me in St. Louis are among my favorite movies, so there's that.

But Mamma Mia, as much as I wanted to like it (and I did want to like it), really does deserve comparison with those other musical disasters I mentioned near the end of the review. It makes me wonder if the thirst for a good musical is so strong that anything is acceptable, but what it probably really means is that the pull of the memory of the stage musical, and the love for those damn songs, and the desire to identify with good-looking people romping in lush locales can paper over an awful lot of misconceived moviemaking.

Felix said...

Terrible terrible movie. I was so looking forward to it. I never saw the musical so I was very interested in seeing the movie. The ending was a HUGE cop out, and to quote a hilarious review: Did anyone here ever heard of DNA testing? Sheesh. It's a bomb. Over a 100 million since it's release and Domestically it's barely made its budget back, come on. It's terrible.

Josh said...

You thought Julie Walters' voice was bad? Really?

Anonymous said...

My audience was primarily the elderly. I'd say 90% of the audience was made of AARP members, and they loved it. I liked it enough that I will see it again on dvd.

Pierce Brosnan should never sing again.

Alan Coil

bill said...

Dennis - Two stars for The Dark Knight? Well. Then I guess you suck and also have no penis.

Dave S said...

saw the stage show and enjoyed it for what it was... saw the movie and hated it! i can honestly say that it's the worst movie musical that i've ever seen... and that includes ' can't stop the music'... at least there it looked like the cast was enjoying the off-camera coke.

i'm glad you mentioned the direction by phyllida lloyd, because there wasn't any! i have no idea what went on behind the scenes... how much interfering there might have been from the studio, producers and cast, what kind of limitations she faced..., but i hope she presented the editor with a nice gift basket when post-production was completed, because i'm sure the editor didn't have much to work with. your notion that she just turned the camera on and walked away seems entirely possible. it's the first time i've seen a movie that felt like it could've been directed by robots.

and where the hell was the volume for the songs? they need to be pumped, not just played as backing tracks. amanda seyfried did have have the most pleasant voice in the movie, but she also seems to have over-dosed on prozac. then, most of the cast seemed to be trying to make up for the lack of energy in the movie by just selling the notion of energy. maybe that's all they could do, left wandering on their own with lloyd off eating cucumber sandwiches or whatever the hell else was distracting her from her director's chores. seriously, i was embarrassed for the first half hour of this movie, just like i was watching clips of tom cruise couch-hopping on 'oprah'. then i just didn't care.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill, please don't think I'm hiding out in the sidebar-- I'd love to get in the fray, so to speak, not that I'd ever receive the volume of brickbats that David, Keith, et al. have had flung at them. It'll be a day or so before I can check in on The Dark Knight, but for now, two stars. Now I'm off to go find my penis!

bill said...

I look forward to your review, Dennis. Have you checked out Jonathan's post from today, regarding superhero movies? Interesting post, even more interesting comments section.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I haven't yet, but I will.

I'm still high off my eight-year-old sitting down with me this weekend and watching Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann's Bend of the River... and loving it!

bill said...

Ha! See, parents-who-are-forced-to-watch-nothing-but-the-Wiggles? It's not that hard! Just get 'em started early, and they'll have great taste for the rest of their lives!

movie buff said...

this is one of the only plays i've ever seen, which ended up being great... it's funny to think of ol' Pierce taking a stab at singing, yeeesh