Mamma Mia! (2008)

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Director: Phyllida Lloyd

I was raised in the era of “please and thank you,” “sir and ma’am,” The Golden Rule, and the firm belief that if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, one shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s a thought that goes back centuries to Jane Austen’s time when the women were advised to stick to the topics of either inquiring as to another’s health and/or restricting their comments to the weather.

Unfortunately, as a film critic, I seldom have that luxury and while I feel I’m far gentler than some critics who curse, berate, exaggerate and figuratively crucify films they loathe—although this being said my favorite critic Roger Ebert summed it up best in the title of a new book, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie—instead, I turn from those manners implanted in me from my youth and go to an old Hollywood standby.

It’s become a movie premiere joke that if an attendee dislikes a film but doesn’t want to say this to another’s face, they usually begin by complimenting its cinematography in the fierce hope the topic will soon change. It’s a strange custom—“I really loved the cinematography” in Hollywood can be code for “I’d rather have a root canal than sit through that thing again,” yet cinematography is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking.

However, in the case of the dreadful Mamma Mia! which is only slightly better than another ghastly film I’ve just seen but can’t even bring myself to review (Ellen Page in The Tracey Fragments which is so dreadful that it makes you start to rethink Page’s performance in Juno) but yet still worse than the mirthless comedy The Promotion, the only thing I can think to praise is the cinematography.

And the sad fact is, I’m not even being ironic or coy—director of photography, the amazing Sleuth and Venus lensman Haris Zambarloukos actually topped his underrated work on last year’s Sleuth. His picturesque, exuberant, and breathtaking Mamma Mia! shots that were so jaw-droppingly gorgeous, they helped detract from the much-crucified sadly giggle-inducing awfulness of Pierce Brosnan’s singing. Additionally, like a morally questionable yet talented plastic surgeon, they helped make a film I can only call shockingly “ugly” just by its direction, odd choreography, and off-putting humor, seem like any given frame could be clipped out of the reel and hung in a museum. Indeed, the travel board of Greece’s island Kalokairi, may want to think about hiring Zambarloukos to film any future travel commercials, yet I feel it’s probably superfluous as the monstrous hit, Mamma Mia! has probably garnered enough fans who’ve decided to visit just on their appreciation for the Broadway musical alone.

Before I even begin to address the film itself, let me preface this by saying—at great risk to my already nerdy reputation-- that in the late 90’s, there was no bigger ABBA fan than yours truly. Their greatest hits album Gold and its sequel had a permanent place in both my home and car CD player and I was often busted at stoplights by drivers in other cars who saw me singing my heart out along to the lyrics penned by Sweden’s greatest export, which was especially embarrassing when this very incident happened not only one block from my college but I was caught by my crush of the week who luckily found it charming, yet proceeded to tease me the rest of the semester by belting out the chorus of “Take a Chance on Me” whenever he saw me walk down a hallway. (Naturally, I took this as an invitation!)

In fact, super-fan that I was, I annoyed my DJ cousin for ABBA requests at receptions he worked until he clued me in that in the DJ world, there’s nothing less hip than a woman requesting “Dancing Queen.” While I told him that any other track would suffice, all I got was an eye-roll and a pat on the back but fortunately, after viewing ABBA: The Movie far too many times on VH1, I began to outgrow my love of the band… until-- that is--word came ‘round that their music had been used throughout a new Broadway hit, Mamma Mia!

It took a few years until I saw the show in a touring company in my hometown and while indeed it was fun to see others enjoy ABBA’s music (despite the overabundance of misguided middle aged men and women dancing and singing along in the aisles which instantly cured me of any major worship of the band), I couldn’t get over the feeling that the show itself was a bit forgettable and overrated.

Yet, to misquote the old Elvis slogan, I assumed that millions of fans around the globe can’t be wrong so when I learned it was going to be adapted to film, as a huge Hollywood musical lover (I know, I just get geekier by the minute), I hoped for the best. Initially, I was skeptical when I heard that Meryl Streep had been selected for the lead role of Donna, the film’s heroine whose soon-to-be wed twenty-year-old daughter Sophie (the adorable Amanda Seyfried) has unbeknownst to Donna-- after discovering her mother’s vintage diary--invited her three possible biological fathers to the wedding with the hope of identifying which one is her dear old dad.

While Streep is hands-down one of the finest actresses in the world, I just didn’t see her as the singing, dancing, earthily sexy, free-spirited Donna, imagining someone like the musically gifted Michelle Pfeiffer for her role. Thankfully, Streep's actually quite good in the film, managing to nail not only every required emotion but hit the notes in a nice way that never overpowers, and manages to win over any doubters with the showstopper “The Winner Takes It All,” for which IMDb reports the vocals were recorded in Sweden in just one take.

No, the problem isn’t with Streep—although she’s given some of the most unflattering, unfeminine, and downright ugly direction ever captured in a musical, with pratfalls aplenty and cannonballs into the sea. However, far more irritating is the continuous choreography that finds her landing with her legs in the air numerous times as though she’s overdue for a pelvic exam. This seems all the more grotesque when this is precisely the way that Mamma’s original stage director Phyllida Lloyd (who also helmed the film) decided to have her first encounter her three former lovers, as though she’s figuratively readying herself for a fertility exercise or about to give birth just as they arrive... complete with—and I kid you not—a Lamaze type breath out the side of her mouth to blow her hair off her face.

Yikes, baby, we’ve come a long, sad way from Cyd Charisse wooing with her sexy legs, or a flirtatious laugh by Ginger Rogers, or a come hither look by Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago. And while the actors all try their best—even poor, pitiful Brosnan who always seems like he’s staring off in the distance, longing to leave the set and go home to his family, not to mention his James Bond residual checks— they’re given very little with which to work in an uneven translation from stage to screen-- making the fault lie squarely with Lloyd.

In the end and despite casting such excellent talents such as up-and-coming hunky British Generation Y star Dominic Cooper, the underrated Stellan Skarsgard and my favorite version of Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth-- overall Mamma Mia! is one over-the-top, bawdy, Fellini like carnvialesque freak-show. I'm not sure about Greece but in the tacky land of Mamma, often the women shriek for no apparent reason (including a wasted Christine Baranski who nonetheless kills in her one showstopper “Does Your Mother Know”) while playing dress-up complete with quirky props that probably would never have even made it into the far campier yet more successful John Waters musical turned film Hairspray from 2007.

In addition, don’t even get me started on a downright embarrassing and desperate sequence featuring Julie Walters crooning “Take a Chance on Me” to a nearly terrified looking Skarsgard, who-- par for the course of male stars in the film-- spends a majority of his time like Firth and Brosnan, trying his damndest not to look at his watch in the hopes that the madness will end sooner rather than later (probably much like a majority of heterosexual males dragged to the film).

And as someone who still knows every single word of every one of ABBA’s classic songs (yes, even the forgettable ones like “Money, Money, Money”), not to mention a film buff who truly makes an effort to champion musical filmmaking in the hopes that we’re given more quality musicals to rival the golden age of those unforgettable MGM classics, it breaks my heart to say that the film is one of the biggest disappointments of the summer.

However, it’s one that I can also say in complete honesty and without just trying to politely evade critique, that man, did I love that spectacular cinematography.