On the eve of its sequel-prequel, Glenn Bristol of the website FilmWonk talks up the joyous, surreal self-indulgence of ABBA’s Mamma Mia!

Poster for Mamma Mia

I was wandering through the mall with my father on a weekday afternoon at the ripe old age of 23, and he suggested we should pop over to the local multiplex to watch Mamma Mia! He and I weren’t mall people then, and are even less so now, and my mother had been a far more common cinema partner (the last father-son movie outing had been the second Lord of the Rings film six years earlier), so I cannot overemphasize what an odd suggestion this was. Odder still was this particular film: A jukebox musical featuring the music of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA, a band whose music I vaguely enjoyed, but was scarcely familiar with beyond “Dancing Queen.” This was before the Shazam app existed, and ABBA sat firmly in the vague pop culture place of, “Oh, yeah—I guess I have heard that song.” Even less in my public consciousness was Amanda Seyfried, who plays the lead in this film, and whom I knew at the time exclusively as the dumbest of the Mean Girls. But apart from Moulin Rouge!, another exclamatory jukebox musical that I adored then and now, I found the disjointed exhibition format of this film to be utterly vexing.

Let me explain, by way of a brief anecdote. A couple of years earlier, in 2006, I flew to upstate New York to visit some friends at Wells College, in the tiny town of Aurora, outside of Syracuse. Wells had been an exclusively women’s college for 136 years, until allowing a handful of men into the mix and officially becoming co-ed the previous year. As such, I was permitted to spend the weekend in my friends’ dorm (I recall some common-area couch-surfing was involved). The day I arrived, they gleefully informed me of the first event on my itinerary: I would accompany them, twenty minutes hence, to a meeting of the Campus Pirate Club, where we would watch all 129 minutes of the 2005 Digital Playground film, Pirates. In case you’re not familiar that studio’s oeuvre, what I’m referring to here is a feature-length pornographic film—one of the most expensive ever made—that I watched in a common room with no less than 15 undergrad women (and I think 1 other man), with the express intention of discussing it through a feminist lens when the movie was over. This being the only occasion in which I had done this extremely specific thing, I came to the quick realization that there’s not a lot of flow to the storyline of such a film. Whenever the adult stars began to do their business, two things would occur: the crowd in my viewing parlor would start to mercilessly mock and riff on what they were seeing, and I would reach for the Stephen King novella collection that I had started on the plane, tuning the movie out. This is a slightly obscene comparison, and I won’t slander Mamma Mia! by suggesting that I thought of it in these exact terms when I first saw it. But looking back, I can see why I’m mentally grouping these experiences together. In Mamma Mia!, as each thinly-justified pop song veered into a boring digression before my eyes, the story ground to a halt, and the characters and plot contorted themselves into whatever shape the performance of the minute required of them. And I knew, with both films, that now would indeed be a safe time to leave the room.

But it was better this time. A lot better. Perhaps it’s my later familiarity with ABBA talking, or my continuing interest in Seyfried’s acting chops, but this movie sparked joy in me this time around that was mostly absent on my first viewing. And while it still has sufficient excess (and ambiguous seamen) to merit the comparison, this will be the last Pirates joke I make about it. Now on with the review.

We open on Sophie (Seyfried), a 20-year-old bride-to-be on a rowboat in the moonlight, preparing a trio of letters, and singing “I Have a Dream,” used quite a bit more happily than where I’ve seen it since. She is on a Greek island called Kalokairi, and informs her trio of bridesmaids that she’s been sneakily reading her mom’s diary from the year that she was pregnant. It turns out that Donna (Meryl Streep) had a busy summer that year, taking a trio of men in turns to this particular island, where she danced with each of them on the beach, and then, “[dot dot dot]”. Within those dots lies the plot, because Sophie has been raised by Donna as a single mother, and has no idea who her father is. Since she has correctly (and with an abundance of giggles) inferred the meaning of this euphemistic punctuation, she gleefully reveals that she has sent letters to each of the three men, inviting them each to the wedding on her mother’s behalf.

And Sophie’s three potential padres are:

  • Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), a fisherman and travel writer.
  • Harry (Colin Firth), a British banker.
  • Sam (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish-American architect.

The dads arrive on the Greek mainland and happen upon each other, quickly deducing that they’re all heading to the same wedding, and they each hitch a ride on Bill’s boat. Meanwhile, Donna is joined on the island by her two childhood friends:

  • Tanya, a wealthy thrice-divorcee (Juilliard-trained Christine Baranski, the film’s best singer by a significant margin)
  • Rosie (Julie Walters), accomplished chef, bestselling cookbook author, and confirmed bachelorette.

Let me tell you what I was grappling with as these two obviously parallel bands of older characters were introduced in obvious and coincidental ways to be obviously and coincidentally matched up by the film’s end. I’ve come to realize over the past decade (and with the 2012 Tom Hooper Les Misérables in particular) that there are narrative tricks and shortcuts that I am prepared to forgive from the musical genre that I will not tolerate from any other: love at first sight, unexplained “death by tragedy,” or the correct number and orientation of characters to get tidily paired off or kill each other by the story’s end. It’s not like the musical genre pioneered these tropes (they were common in Shakespeare as well), but they did teach me that something I would regard as a detriment in any other genre—characters acting “how the script needs them to act” from moment to moment—is an asset when it’s needed to kick off a jaunty song and dance. But therein lies the conundrum with a jukebox musical: when the songs are as thinly justified as “Money, Money, Money” was in this scene, they test my predisposition to view them charitably, nearly to destruction. The subtext of the scene and song is that Donna has been a single mom running a broken-down hotel, and hasn’t had a day off in 15 years, and she also has mixed feelings about her daughter Sophie getting married and potentially leaving the island—and herself—behind.

I’m calling out this scene for a few reasons. First, because this was a particularly egregious example of the song justifying the scene, and not vice versa. Second, because this struggle, while ably played by both Streep and Seyfried, felt perfunctory and was poorly justified in the script. And third, because I wasn’t entirely correct in my dismissive assumptions about how the characters would all get paired off romantically by the end. Mamma Mia! isn’t exactly full of surprises, but it managed a red herring or two, and the first of them is set up right here. More on this later.

Apart from the singsong trickery, all of the old-friends interactions between Donna, Tanya, and Rosie—known collectively by their former music group moniker, The Dynamos—are just delightful. Their every interaction is a flurry of contradictions: Donna is in her home, dealing with work and ambivalence about her daughter’s future, but her friends are here to enjoy a vacation in paradise. The three of them are getting on in years, but they’ve known each other since they were teenagers, and fully regress to youthful demeanor in each other’s presence, dunking on and bantering with each other, with the added mix of being able to drink alcohol and, on at least one occasion, pop pills. Donna—who is about to find out that the dads have arrived—revels in the potential joys of revisiting her old flames, but also throws in a few motherly digressions—perhaps from her own intervening years, perhaps echoed from her deeply Catholic mother—literally calling herself a “stupid, reckless little slut” at one point. While Money, Money, Money didn’t work spontaneously, many of their other digressions worked well— “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” come in rapid succession, just as much out of nowhere—but all of the prior scenes between these three powerhouse actresses sell these moments well. When it comes down to it, these three work brilliantly as friends, and while Baranski is clearly the most experienced singer of the three, Streep and Walters are more than adequate songbirds for this material. Streep manages to sell her signature number (“Mamma Mia!“) brilliantly, as she joyously romps around a rooftop peeping on the dads, who are cloistered in the goat-house attic.

Goat-house attic? Let’s back up. So much of this film’s setup relies on misunderstandings and secrets and lies stacked on top of outright lies—this is comic melodrama bordering on farce, but it’s wicked fun. Sophie intercepts the dads on the dock, and promptly stashes them in the attic of a building that we only ever hear referred to as the goat-house. She confesses that she sent the invitations, and Donna has no idea that the three men are there. After some brief panic and bonding, they mysteriously agree to go along with this plan, and literally ten seconds pass before Donna spots them, seeing them in flashbacks as they appeared when she knew them. And, if I might put my thumb on the scale, Brosnan is the clear winner, and I can only hope that if a needless origin sequel to this film is released today, that these exact hairstyles are retained.

Mamma Mia! flashback triptych

So—Donna falls into the attic and somehow believes that these men all arrived at the same time as a mere coincidence (with some vague blame placed on the goddess Aphrodite, whose fountain might just be on this very island!), and demands that they take off immediately before Sophie sees them. Her willful ignorance here is…a bit much, but all of these men clearly still have some feeling for her, and it plays well. The dads flee to Bill’s boat, and Sophie swims out to prevent them from leaving.

And this is the moment. Colin Firth starts “Our Last Summer,” but his sweet, boring vocals are quickly displaced by those of the deservedly notorious Pierce Brosnan. And what can I say here? He really is quite a mediocre singer—the only comparably bad vocals that come to mind were those of Russell Crowe‘s Javert in the aforementioned Les Mis—and there’s not much more to say about it without being unkind. Sam is not merely singing badly, but outside of his vocal range as well, and it’s almost bad enough to distract from the well-executed montage that occurs here, which is Sophie bonding with all three of her prospective dads—Sam makes a sketch of her, the group jumps off a seaside clip, they share a bonfire on the beach… This whole dynamic, which continues with Sophie as the film goes on, is very nice. These men aren’t noticeably competing with each other, and—a few scenes later when they realize what Sophie’s after, are interested in the truth about Sophie’s parentage, but they still aren’t interested in fighting each other over it. To put it in reality TV terms, these people did come here to make friends, and they seem to largely succeed.

If I were to devote an entire paragraph to each song, this would be quite a long review, so I’ll gloss over the next few: Sophie’s fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) shows up before his stag party for a little pre-marital [dot dot dot] with Sophie on the beach, and they sing a lusty duet of “Lay All Your Love on Me” before literally twenty men show up to haul him off, flex their muscles, and then leap from the dock, before tearing off on jetskis. I guess Sky’s a popular fellow! I should mention here, I enjoyed this moment a bit more this time around, because 23-year-old Glenn had never heard the term “stag party” (British slang for a bachelor party), and had no idea who this phalanx of dudes were, or why they had abducted the groom. Huzzah for British TV!

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

Back at the bachelorette party (“hen party!”—silly Brits), Donna and the Dynamos jump on stage in all their fabulous, sequinned glory, and begin an awkward a cappella performance of “Super Trouper,” before hitting the boombox and suddenly getting good again. This was a fine little flourish of musical storytelling to quickly remind the audience that this is the group’s first public performance in a while, before hitting us with the deft choreography and pristine vocals that we expect of the genre. Bravo.

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

I’ll only make one other note here, which is the one I wrote during the rewatch: “What the hell is a Super Trouper?“. The answer…will disappoint you. Never look it up.

The dads show up to watch, but are quickly shown the door by Rosie, who reminds them no men are allowed at a hen party. But the ladies (all in their early 20s) disagree, and drag all three of these…45- through 57-year-old men…back into the party for some body shots (“Gimme Gimme Gimme“)? Yeah, I’m not pulling a screenshot for that. You’ll just have to imagine it. Nonetheless, a few important things happen in this scene. The Dynamos hatch a plot to get the dads plastered tonight and…take them fishing in the morning? Possibly to murder or sleep with them? It’s all a bit vague and innuendo-laden (Baranski’s lusty delivery of “Well now that takes me back” is worth the price of admission), and meanwhile, each of the dads has a private chat with Sophie, and they each deduce why she has brought them there: to find her father among them.

Now let me say some kind words about all of these actors: This scene contains some of the only purely character-driven drama in the film. Seyfried is outstanding, and the dawning realization on each man’s face as they learn that Sophie is fatherless and of an age to be their child, really sells this film’s melodrama in a way that transcends all of its lyrical silliness. Brosnan is as good an actor as he is bad a singer—KIND WORDS, I said—okay. Brosnan is good. Firth’s eyes widen, but his real reaction comes later. And the upshot of this scene is that Bill has the most convincing paternal claim: his aunt left Donna some money to buy the hotel—money that Bill always knew had gone to someone in his family. And now he knows who that someone is: his daughter. Skarsgård owns the terror on Bill’s face as he high-tails it out of the party, with Sophie following him down to the moonlit rocks, demanding he tell her the truth. “Are you my father?” He is. Or at least he thinks he is. Speaking outside the logic of the film, I think the script’s actual answer is that Bill is the father, even if, by intention, it’s never definitively confirmed. Sophie asks Bill to keep it a secret until the wedding, and walk her down the aisle.

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

And then it gets weird and intense. The party gets invaded by Sky and the mask-clad dude brigade, who literally repel in, and a stellar dance number ensues to the tune of “Voulez-Vous.” This is actually the third or fourth of these big chorus numbers with dozens of featured extras, and while I didn’t call them out in previous scenes, they’re all pretty stellar. And then Sam and Harry come up in turn to identify thesmelves as Sophie’s father and volun-tell her that they’re walking her down the aisle. The cast and chorus swirl around Sophie, she realizes she’s in over her head, and promptly passes out.

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

Take a look at that sailboat. Just look at it. This film has already hit its dramatic and musical peak, we somehow still have 50 minutes remaining. The sun rises on a new day, and instead of the film jumping directly to the wedding as it should, the lobby lights blink warmly on and off, and I’m reminded that this is as close to a real-world musical theatre experience as I’ve ever had at the cinema. Mamma Mia! is directed by English stage veteran Phyllida Lloyd, who premiered the original West End production in 1999, and the film showboats extravagantly at this point, meandering as if its curtain is rising to an audience that’s paid a hundred quid per ticket to be here (half-price for students and same-days), and have all just spent 15 minutes in the lobby pounding liquor, debating exactly which costume and song they liked the best, plotting where they’ll go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over, and they simply won’t tolerate anything less than another hour of libretto and a dozen more fully-produced songs. And finally this film’s overwhelming indulgence starts to makes sense to me. The second act of this film is much more of a hoot than I remembered, but I stand by my original assessment: most of it is unnecessary.

After some brief “Previously on Mamma Mia!” banter between the respective groups, a bizarre scene ensues between Bill and Harry on the boat. Harry tells Bill that he realized something incredible and self-defining for the first time last night, and here is where I admit a minor personal failing: on my first viewing, I completely failed to pick up on the fact that Harry was gay—or at least mostly gay—until he spells it out at the end of the film. I thought this scene was just a cheeky misunderstanding that the movie was leaning into, because using a gay or presumed-to-be-gay character as a punchline was par for the course in the ’90s and ’00s. But I realize now that I just saw what I expected to see here, and in so doing, I did the film a disservice. This scene is as clear as mud, but it’s also cleverer than I ever gave it credit for. Bill thinks Harry is talking about being secretly gay, while Harry is actually talking about finding out Sophie is his daughter. But Harry is also secretly gay, and Bill, a worldly gentleman, is baffled that Harry didn’t know this about himself already. Bill has just gotten out of the shower and is wearing nothing but a towel in this scene, and again I’ll say: I genuinely believe now that him being alone and naked with a closeted gay man is not intended as the punchline here, except for the scene’s capacity to toy with the audience’s assumptions. Bill is actually remarkably chill about it, encouraging Harry to tell his truth out loud, and Harry, who has also mysteriously agreed to keep Sophie’s parentage a secret (despite being the only dad of the three who made no such promise at the party last night), steadfastly refuses, saying that “all will be revealed tonight.” Sigh.

Next, Bill tells Harry that he also realized something last night, and Harry thinks he’s talking about hitting on Rosie. Their discussion quickly veers apart, and Rosie pops in at the open hatch above before Bill (or the audience) can really understand what the hell just happened, and the scene abruptly ends with some butt jokes. This doesn’t work so well—as after two recent viewings of the party scene, I saw no spark between Bill and Rosie. But as I noted above, they are one of the more predictable romantic pairings in the film, so it comes as no shock when they get a cat-and-mouse romantic duet at the end of the film.

Donna and Sophie meet in the courtyard to have a fight over whether or not the wedding will be canceled (which Donna offers quite out of nowhere), and…I just realized we’re 62 minutes into this film and this is the first time that this pair—mother and daughter, and the two main characters in this film—have had a conversation. This scene is even more baffling than the one that it follows, and Sophie ends it on a genuinely hurtful note: that she doesn’t want her children growing up not knowing who their father is, because “it’s crap.” Streep plays this moment with muted devastation, letting Donna feel it for just long enough before clattering on with wedding preparation. But she’s about to be even sadder, because it’s Pierce Brosnan-solo time. Of the three dads, Sam is the most clearly still in love with Donna, and he declares it here with an awkward monologue about bagpipes, followed by a bagpipe-worthy rendition of “SOS.”

But let’s talk about what happened in the middle there. Sam implores Donna to let Sophie go, she’s a bright kid, she wants to see the world, etc. Sam’s knowing pretension about matters he rightfully should know nothing about should probably bother me more, but it honestly doesn’t—see above, re: forgiving this sort of thing from the musical genre. Sam is the love interest, Donna loves him right back in song, and lo, they are a couple, and he can tell it to Donna like the script says it is. This is fine, and Streep and Brosnan really do sell it, even if the latter’s singing is unforgivably bad. Speaking of unforgivably bad, Donna and Sophie’s mother-daughter dynamic is explored in one more montage before the film is over (“Slipping Through my Fingers“), which I will not be discussing any further. It’s all very pretty, but it still doesn’t illuminate this underexplored relationship one bit, or make Sophie’s quixotic decision at the film’s end make any more sense to me. These actors work. This relationship does not.

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

And now it’s Christine Baranski‘s time to shine. If my knowledge of Seyfried was limited in 2008, my knowledge of Baranski was even more so—The Good Wife was more than a year away, and I knew her solely from a guest appearance as a parody-Dr. Laura on Frasier. Tanya emerges from a jetski after landing a sick burn on Harry, and it’s revealed that she hooked up with the bartender (and Sky’s best man), Pepper (Phillip Michael), last night. Pepper puts on his charm in the hopes of a second round, and Tanya busts out a saucy mockery of May-December romance, in the form of a house-demolishing solo of “Does Your Mother Know?” Baranski is absolutely in command here. Her dancing is flawless, her boy-toy dismissal is blistering, and this is as thorough a demonstration of Tanya’s dynamic with her pair of friends as the film has time for. She is on vacation, and in this place, she feels young, and can fully regress. She’s still got it, and she knows it and acts like it. “Girls,” she intones, “We done good.” Okay, Brosnan is forgiven unless he sings two more songs, and I take back everything I said about the second act. I can’t imagine this film without this joyous diversion.

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

Some other stuff happens. It doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to talk about it. Donna and Sophie have the montage I mentioned above, and Sophie asks her mother to be the one who gives her away. They cry. And then it’s sundown, the wedding party assembles, and Sophie gets hoisted side-saddle onto a freaking donkey like she’s Jesus Christ, and the gang parades their way toward a terrifying, tide-battered rock with a chapel perched precariously at the top. Sophie knows they’re about to blow up the sitcom misunderstanding that she and her mother have been inflating over the course of the film, so her panic should be palpable. But honestly, if I were her, I’d mostly be experiencing pangs of height-induced vertigo at this moment. The party shuffles off, and Sam intercepts Donna. He makes romantic overtures (and paternal ones as well), and Donna declares that she will be giving Sophie away at the wedding. Then she serenades him before the glowing sea (“The Winner Takes It All“), and he stands stoically. Brosnan seems well-prepared, standing stoically and only occasionally grabbing his own neck for support…I guess he’s studied his Garfunkel and Oates. Meryl Streep is a star. Her singing is fine, but her acting is stellar, and she makes every beat of this angsty romance and lyrical irony flow perfectly. Every twinge, every emotion, every little chuckle… You can trust Streep. She always knows what she’s doing. Even if we’ll have to hear Sam sing about it a couple more times, these two will be together if Donna declares it. And this rock (a real place with a real chapel!) is really quite stunning. I understated its fairy tale beauty above, even if it genuinely looks like every actor ascending it is in mortal peril.

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

Donna reaches the chapel during magic hour, and the wedding kicks off. All three dads stand up, Donna and Sophie each realize what the other has done, and sweet, sweet confessions ensue. Sam reveals that he went home to his fiancée (which we knew), told her exactly what had happened, called off his wedding, and returned to the island to be with Donna—but she was off with one of the others by this point. So he went home to his ex-fiancée Lorraine, who “called [him] an idiot and married [him] to prove it.” He is an idiot, in that way that only romantic characters can be (didn’t Gosling and McAdams pull this same “just missed ya” routine in The Notebook?). Harry stands up to tell the whole church that he’s been gay this whole time (and nods to a male PYT that he apparently had a fling with at the stag party), but he’s still thrilled to have “a third of Sophie,” as she’s more of a child than he ever expected to have (I didn’t mention this above, but he cornered Donna and offered to pay for the wedding, as Tanya had bitingly suggested). Sam and Bill say similar things: they’re all happy to be Sophie’s 1/3-father. It’s all very nice.

And then Sophie goes insane. No, really, I have no explanation for what happens next. So I’ll simply transcribe it.

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

Sophie: You know, I have no clue which one of you is my dad, but I don’t mind! Now, I know what I really want. Sky, let’s just not get married yet.
*crowd gasps*
Sky: What?!
Sophie: You never wanted this anyway. I know that! Let’s just get off this island…and just see the world. Okay? Alright?
Sky (thunderstruck): I love you.
Priest: Donna, do I take it the wedding is canceled?
Donna (and the audience): I’m not entirely sure what’s happening right now.
Sam: Hang on. Why waste a good wedding? How about it, Sheridan? You’re going to need someone to boss around on this island of yours.
Donna: Are you nuts? I am not a bigamist!
Sam: Neither am I. I’m a divorced man who’s loved you for 21 years, and ever since the day I set foot on this island, I’ve been trying to tell you how much I love you. Come on, Donna! It’s only the rest of your life!

And then Sam sings again (“I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do“) and OH GOD JUST MARRY HIM SO HE’LL SHUT UP.

Captioned still from "Mamma Mia!"

She does. He doesn’t. (“When All Is Said and Done“)

Bill and Rosie lament being spares, and have their extremely bizarre rooftop courtship (“Take a Chance on Me“). The courtyard explodes, Aphrodite’s fountain bursts, and another chorus of “Mamma Mia!” (now performed by ABBA) plays over the ensuing dance orgy, which fades out, and we see a day-for-night shot of Sophie reprising “I Have a Dream.” Credits! The Dynamos rise out of the water (in another stunning set of glittery costumes) to sing “Dancing Queen” a second time. They laugh maniacally, Meryl screams like a rockstar and asks if we want another one. We do. They sing “Waterloo.” That was seven songs in under 10 minutes. Did I enjoy it? Yes. But this is the Return of the King ending on bath salts.

Still from "Mamma Mia!"

What is allegedly this film’s core conflict—between Sophie and Donna over whether or not she will get married, leave the island, or both, is almost a total miss. But everything within each group—the Dynamos, the dads, Sophie’s interactions with the latter, landed well, and the acting was dynamite, even if the singing had a clear weak link in the chain. In the end, I found revisiting this film, writing this review, and if I may say so, every moment of Seyfried’s joy in being the prime mover of this plot, to be utter delights. I don’t regret the comparison I made in the opening paragraph, as it’s fair to say that jukebox musicals are thoroughly on the indulgent side of the genre. But I would no longer place this film and Moulin Rouge! in separate categories. Moulin Rouge! may have been more elaborate, but each film was gorgeous, melodramatic, and self-indulgent in its own way, and I would say I enjoy each of them equally at this point. Mamma Mia! hooked me and didn’t let go. On a work night, I stayed awake until 1AM finishing up this review, because I just couldn’t bring myself to retrieve screenshots with maximal efficiency, and found myself essentially rewatching every musical number for a second time within a week. And with this week’s [still-unnecessary] sequel being compared, perhaps seriously, to The Godfather: Part II—I’ll concede that I may need to check this one out. Apparently Brosnan’s “SOS” has even improved. I’ll believe it when I hear it.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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