Mamma Mia!

mammamia.jpg
Donna Sheridan/Universal Studios
Phyllida Lloyd/United Kingdom-United States-Germany 2008

This inevitable film version of Mamma Mia!, the Broadway sensation that spawned the jukebox subgenre currently taking over the Great White Way, plays about as well as a compendium of music videos set to ABBA songs should. That is to say, not very well at all. It’s flashy and peppy to be sure. However – in the words of Gertrude Stein – there is no there there.

The movie runs 108 minutes long, looks and feels so airy that it seems far shorter; and is over, done with and forgotten by the time the lights come up. The material works well on stage, where the concept of a loose narrative conjoining the ABBA catalog functions as a sort of super-sized best hits extravaganza. On film, the dramatic deficiencies become more pronounced as one quickly tires of director Phyllida Lloyd’s steadfast attempts to disguise them behind an ever emptier, manically photographed spectacle.

The story functions as little more than a stopgap between elaborate musical numbers. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) – about to be married on the Greek island on which she and her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) run a hotel – sends letters to the three men who mom’s diary suggests could be her unknown father, inviting each to the wedding. Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth) – one-dimensional stereotypes all – arrive and the stage is set for Sophie to learn the truth about her biological past.

Lloyd, who also directed the stage version, lavishes this halfhearted comedy of errors with nowhere near the loving care she brings to the performances of “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me” and other standards. She never seems clear on the proper mode for filming conversations, operating either in close-up or long shot while her camera constantly moves. Fortunately, the musical sequences, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast – who filled the same role for the stage version – unfold with the sort of energetic abandon sorely missing from the rest of the production. Borrowing the beach party aesthetic, they’re filled with fit, gyrating choruses that support the actors as they leap, dance and parade all over the set.

The filmmaker cuts gleefully while her camera pans and glides across the marauding figures and tracks Streep as she merrily prances across the set. The gorgeous location, with the hotel’s sea blue interiors perfectly matching the endless clear water vistas, makes it so the film practically serves as a commercial for the Greek islands’ tourism bureau. Yet, despite the spirited musical numbers, picturesque scenery and Streep’s full throttle performance an essential fact remains: Movies just don’t get much more persistently vapid than this, even within the musical genre.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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