Mamma Meryl! ABBA-thon Even Defeats Streep

rex mammamia Mamma Meryl! ABBA thon Even Defeats StreepMAMMA MIA!
RUNNING TIME 108 minutes
WRITTEN BY Catherine Johnson
DIRECTED BY Phyllida Lloyd
STARRING Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters

Amid the summer junk-movies that are already going down in history as artifacts, some folks will welcome, I suppose, the nauseating cornball music of the Swedish pop group ABBA which pounds its way through the monumentally inconsequential Mamma Mia! To me, the popularity of the jukebox blather of this gang of no-talents is only slightly less understandable than the war in Iraq. And the movie they’ve made of the bafflingly popular tourist attraction still playing on Broadway is only slightly more unbearable than finding myself the real-life star of all the Saw movies rolled into one. Like the show, there’s a lot of bumping, jerking, twitching, shrieking and jumping up and down while pretending to have fun, but the entire cast of misguided pros look like they just woke up in a bed of red ants.

You could write the plot on the head of an ice pick, which is exactly what Catherine Johnson, adapting her original book to the screen from a “concept” by Judy Craymer, has done. If you’ve been subjected to one of the productions already staged in 170 cities and in eight different languages, you know it’s about a disgraced, pregnant and very unwed American pop singer (played by a woefully miscast Meryl Streep) who moved to Greece to have a daughter and run a rotting hotel. That was 20 years earlier. Now the little girl has grown into a lovely bride-to-be (Amanda Seyfried, from the TV series Big Love) who invites three of her mom’s old one-night stands to the wedding, hoping to discover which one is her father. Everyone finds love in time for an admittedly beautiful Greek sunset—and yet another in an endless parade of club-footed dances amateurishly choreographed and numbingly directed by Phyllida Lloyd. That’s it. End of story. But the boring, lugubrious hit parade of nauseating pop songs just drags on and on, droning into a threatened eternity of bathos.

Bring earplugs. The first of many fatal mistakes in this misbegotten mush was allowing the actors to do their own singing. Ms. Streep has sung before, but her musical voice is weirdly uneven here. The others are so out of tune that every time they open their mouths, you wince. A far more experienced musical cast might have given it some precision, but as the actors arrive, one by one, on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, they don’t seem amusingly conflicted by the wedding chaos, just tormented. This cruelty only heightens the weakness of the material. Nothing has been tailored to fit the particular talents of the cast. They’ve all been thrown into a shark-infested pool to sink or swim. To put it mildly, they float like fishy mammals auditioning for the role of a beached whale.

Donna, the Streep role, depends mainly on an earthy charm of which the actress might have been capable if she had had a decent director. She’s merely static and tentative, flapping her arms all over the scenery like someone attacked by a swarm of killer bees. Watching her desperately trying to bring to life a character that is essentially cardboard is one of the year’s more embarrassing challenges. Her frantic cohorts lack the ease to take up the required slack. The other two members of her old vocal group, Donna and the Dynamos, turn up as bitchy, drunken gorgons (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) who slug ouzo and flounce and bounce like drag queens. Not good drag queens from Greenwich Village. More like bad drag queens from open-mike cabaret night at the Des Moines Holiday Inn airport lounge. Worst of all, meet the three possible Dads, played by Pierce Brosnan, who gets the big love songs but can’t carry a tune in a paper bag; serious Lars von Trier veteran Stellan Skarsgård, who looks blank and uncomfortable throughout; and dashing Colin Firth, who, for no reason except an excuse to give his character a proper exit, falls in love with a man. None of them can sing, and nothing they do looks natural. Rarely have I witnessed so many pros appear so clueless.

Anything in Mamma Mia! that risks becoming an actual scene only serves as another song cue. The result is a farrago of fake tunes, plagued with sophomoric lyrics, noisy and flat and begging to be burned (“Don’t go wasting your emotion … sharing your devotion … Lay all your love on me,” shouted by dancing beach boys in snorkel flippers) followed by more tunes (“I’ve played all my cards … Nothing more to say/ No more ace to play … The winner takes it all/ The loser has to fall”) and even more tunes (“I believe in angels/ Something good in everything I see … when I know the time is right for me”) while the Greek peasants stop tending their goats to sing “Oom-pa-pa” in the background. I mean, are they kidding? Are people now so removed from real music that they actually sing along with this sentimental bilge? It’s all supposed to impart a smiley-face feeling of lighthearted innocence, but it just looks stupid. The joy is metallic and the energy is forced, but look at it this way: The payroll checks were astronomical, and they all got a great vacation in the Greek islands. Making movies—even godawful dogs like Mamma Mia!—still beats pushing a sausage cart down the streets of a broiling New York summer.

rreed@observer.com