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Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)

     With a certain degree of, but certainly not unqualified, success, stage director Phyllida Lloyd brings her Abba musical Mamma Mia! to the big screen. Though far less burdened by its own importance than most modern movie musicals, it still stumbles a bit under the sheer weight of its own production from time to time (e.g. the “Money, Money, Money” number). Lloyd’s inexperience behind the camera is all too apparent, all too often. Her cross-cutting destroys cinematic space, needlessly distances us from the performers, and usually fails to add to overall energy levels. Too frequently, she stages her musical numbers as mere karaoke. Nonetheless, Lloyd has managed to succeed where many have failed in recent years, making an entertaining, carefree romp that is as powered by its stars as by its soundtrack.

     Perhaps it goes without saying, but Meryl Streep is nothing less than superb here. She delivers a knowing performance of a caliber that is both entirely expected (given her talent) and wholly unexpected (given the source material). Much like Abba’s music managed to turn trite sentiment into great pop art, Streep turns their songs and the film’s tired romantic comedy clichés into something that often comes quite close to transcendent. She’s able to infuse a song as maudlin as “The Winner Takes It All” with what seems to be a lifetime of genuinely arrived at regret. When she’s on screen, the movie works. Perhaps more surprising is how capable Amanda Seyfried proves to be as Streep’s daughter. Looking the part, she holds her own against Streep, and is worthy of sharing the screen with her (unlike The Devil Wears Prada’s Anne Hathaway, who seemed in constant danger of being shouted off the set). Few in the supporting cast are up to the standard of these two, but that’s acceptable because either mother or daughter is present in the vast majority of the musical numbers.

     Mamma Mia! doesn’t aim for the stars, and it fails on its own slight terms as often as it succeeds, but it’s likable nonetheless. One could grumble about how it objectifies the Greek islanders that serve as extras or grouse about the Lloyd’s ability to make any of this matter to us as anything more than a lark, but that would be at the expense of recognizing the achievements that are present. Yes, it’s very rare that the interpretation of the songs is anything above literal, but one notable exception, a one-two punch of “Gimme a Man After Midnight” and “Voulez Vous”  during which the young heroine’s daddy issues come to a head, more explicitly suggests what the entire film is implying: it’s the very vague nature of these pop songs that universalizes them and makes them worth celebrating in this fashion.


Jeremy Heilman