Mamma Mia! (2008)

Dir. Phyllida Lloyd. Starring Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan

It’s about eighty percent of the way through the movie. Sam (Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and Harry (Colin Firth) have all learned why they’re on this little Greek island. The daughter of a woman each of them had a fling with about twenty years back is getting married, and Sophie (Seyfried), assuming she would know her father when she saw him, has discovered she has no idea which man it is. Her mother, Donna (Streep), is overwhelmed. Not only does she think her daughter’s wedding is a little sudden, but she’s worn thin taking care of her crumbling hotel. Seeing the ghosts from her past – especially, as it turns out, that she doesn’t even know which one is her daughter’s father – is the breaking point. All of this melts away for a minute, though, as Tanya (Christine Baranski) hangs out on the beach. She’s been fending off a young man about the same age as the groom more or less since she stepped off the boat; Pepper (Philip Michael) doesn’t seem to care much that Tanya is easily old enough to be his mother. The musical number that follows on the beach is “Does Your Mother Know?”

“Does Your Mother Know?” is one of those lesser-known songs in the ABBA canon, a few steps below “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia” and “Super Trouper,” and unusual because it’s sung by Bjorn Ulvaeus. Baranski, Michael, and the company of sprightly young folks surrounding them take their moment in the sun, unsupported by any of the former Bonds, Mean Girls, or Oscar nominees in the cast. It is the single number in this entire movie which might reasonably belong in another movie musical. More than any other person over the age of twenty-five in this movie, Baranski can sing, and she is a more than adequate dancer; watching her mess around with Michael is fun and, for lack of a better word, musicalish. The camera moves neatly between Baranski strutting up the beach and Michael’s reaction shots, from company dancing back to Baranski. The song, despite the fact that it could have been cut out of the movie and nothing of the plot or the characters would be changed, fits lyrically in a way that “Money, Money, Money” or “The Winner Takes It All” simply don’t. From an empirical perspective, “Does Your Mother Know?” is the best part of the movie, and it stands out. Yet if you asked me which parts I’d want to watch again, “Does Your Mother Know?” would probably be in the middle. Mamma Mia! is just not that kind of movie.

Mamma Mia! is more interesting nearly ten years after its original release because its time is essential to its stars, who have changed so much since then, but whose star images then had an outsize effect on the movie.

In particular, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper firmly anchor this movie in the late aughts. Both of them were, if not quite top-notch stars, destined to make it to the ceiling/roof within the next two or three years; it hasn’t happened. Cooper, despite a concerted Hollywood push to make him a star, has never really taken off. Almost thirty when Mamma Mia! premiered (and thus playing a high school senior in his late twenties in Starter for Ten and The History Boys), his roles languished for a long time in the mold of “snarky teen,” and only recently, with his starring role in Preacher, has he started to recreate himself as an actor with more than one trick up his sleeve. Seyfried, who for the better part of a decade was actually winning the post-Mean Girls career race, has ceded that ground, maybe irreversibly, to Rachel McAdams. Seyfried is barely over thirty and yet she too has yet to find a set of roles for herself beyond the teens we were so used to seeing her as, not only in Mean Girls and Mamma Mia! but Red Riding Hood and Les Miserables and Jennifer’s Body. One wonders what more of an arthouse leaning would do for Seyfried, who was the title character in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe the year after Mamma Mia!; one hopes that she will escape the doubtless profitable but artistically empty movies of Seth Macfarlane. Amusingly, the blueprint for Seyfried might be similar to the one that Amy Adams, who is ten years Seyfried’s senior, has drawn up for herself. Adams spent a few years convincing us how gritty she could be after playing redheaded Tinkerbell, and since then that’s opened the door for an interesting movie like Arrival. Perhaps a decade from now, assuming we’re all still here by then, Seyfried will have executed that sort of turnaround. I’d be thrilled.

Mamma Mia! uses those personae to create the image of two very young people who seem more or less immune to failure. Even though Sky doesn’t seem terribly skilled (he can design websites?) and Sophie is twenty and awfully naive, the movie never really considers that the two of them might falter. Cooper is much too tan; Seyfried is much too cute. People that tan and cute and energetic, in Seyfried’s case, will never come a cropper. (One shudders for the characters, really, knowing what we know about the economy they’ll enter in 2008; more than one analyst has suggested that Mamma Mia!‘s huge success at the box office was based on its unrelenting cheerfulness in the face of financial horror like people hadn’t seen in decades.) Sophie might have fouled up by asking three men who could be her father to come to her wedding without telling Sky or Donna, but how could it blow up in her face? Sky might be a little lackadaisical, the only person at this villa who doesn’t seem infected with the energy of the place, but that doesn’t appear to have stopped him from only finding the heads-up pennies his entire life. When the two of them leave for the Greek mainland, still unmarried but presumably off to travel for the foreseeable future, they travel light on a dinghy. What could go wrong with that?

Streep and Firth, in 2008, were so similar in terms of our perception of them. Streep, after winning Oscars for two of the first four roles she was nominated for, was famously in the deep end of her 0-12 streak. (Lloyd would direct Streep to her third and most recent win in 2011 for The Iron Lady.) Indeed, after being in a whole bunch of interesting movies through the mid-80s, Streep’s ’90s are fairly tame, and out of her pre-Mamma Mia! performances in the 2000s, only The Devil Wears Prada stands out. (In one telling feature, The Hours, Nicole Kidman grabbed the Oscar and Julianne Moore was the unmistakably brilliant actress. Streep barely existed.) Since Mamma Mia!, Streep performed as well as she’d done in some time in Doubt, won that elusive third Oscar, and is probably more popular now in her latest role as the Internet’s mom than she’s been in movies since the ’80s. Firth had not yet capitalized on his ability to be both British and awkward, or perhaps we as a culture had simply not been Cumberbatched. In any event, Mamma Miais a year ahead of Firth’s own renaissance. A Single Man is magnificent;The King’s Speech is a movie every bit as unserious as Mamma Mia! but which fooled everyone by using a color palette with fewer vibrant blues and more settled browns. In any case, Firth also seems to have gotten lucky since Mamma Mia!. 

In the movie itself, Streep and Firth play the people who are most confused about what they want, or are the furthest away from getting it. Donna used to be a glamorous pop star; now she’s making herself old trying to run this beautiful but creaky Greek resort. Harry used to be “the Head-Banger,” and now he’s fabulously wealthy but lacks, as he says about eight times, spontaneity. In the end, Donna gets married to Sam, who appears to have been the great love of her life; Brosnan, though he sings like Cookie Monster given the gift of Song, is appropriately debonair for this purpose. Harry has found some guy who he’s fallen for, which is a twist significantly more surprising and random than the climactic scene in the chapel where Sophie decides not to get married but Donna does. One dreams of these unrealistic happy endings for these two stars whose best days appear to have been well behind them.

People talk all the time about how “this is one you have to see in the theater” either because it is visually remarkable (Avatar, Life of Pi) or because the crowd experience is important (Get Out). I saw this movie first when it was pretty late in its theatrical run, or maybe even re-released; it was formatted for sing-along, and I wish to God they’d do this again now that I know more ABBA songs than I did as a senior in high school. (I realize that’s not on brand for the guy who’s constantly arguing that Ulvaeus and Andersson are dangerously underrated, but I’m not always proud of who I was.) All the same, it was the kind of weirdly campy group experience which has cemented Mamma Mia! as a pretty bad movie, but also one which is terribly exciting in the right situation. It’s the perfect movie to see in a theater (preferably a British one, where Mamma Mia! is so popular that it’s literally unbelievable), or at home eating popcorn with a group of likeminded goofballs. The film elicits reaction after reaction because something marvelously dumb or marvelously ludicrous happens. You either groan because Julie Walters has decided the best way to get Meryl Streep out of her bathroom is an a cappella rendition of “Chiquitita,” or you scream with laughter because Meryl Streep is wearing enough fabric for ten men at the bow of a cruise liner, nine men’s worth of fabric floating in the wind. I like movies that remind me of going to church – Kubrick’s like that, and so is Bergman – but there’s a niche for movies which are sustained giddiness. The eighth Fast and the Furious movie comes out later this week; absolutely nothing could be sillier than watching decked-out muscle cars drive away from a submarine. An entire diet of that sort of cinema seems counterproductive, or at least like the shine would come off eventually. And the same is true for Mamma Mia!, which gains most of its charm from being totally unpolished where the average musical dies for a little respectability. No one in Mamma Mia! dances like Gene Kelly or sings like Judy Garland, but that was never the point. Everyone, even when they’re in the depths of despair, is having immeasurable fun. “The Winner Takes It All,” which is no one’s favorite ABBA song but which is dramatic enough for this dramatic moment, takes place on a winding rocky road within the sunset above cliffs themselves above the Aegean Sea. Pierce Brosnan looks as uncomfortable as you or I would if someone were monologuing through song right in front of us, and Streep looks as uncomfortable as you or I would if someone told us to emote our deepest feelings through an ABBA joint. It’s a bad scene, and I can’t help but think that we’re meant to snuggle ourselves up in the badness like it’s a favorite pair of pajama pants.

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