Sing No Evil
Too Late--Meryl Streep, Stellan Skarsgård, and Pierce Brosnan Have Already Opened Their Mouths in This Musical Monstrosity
Just as some people like Anne Geddes posters, Nicholas Sparks novels, and imitation bacon bits, some people like ABBA. For the rest of us, baffled by the appeal of its disco-diluted pop and ESOL lyrics, listening to "Dancing Queen" or "Waterloo" is like chewing gum that's been dropped in the sand--a little squirt of fruit flavor, a lot of grit between the teeth. Like those freakish deep-sea creatures living happily in a toxic soup of methane brine miles beneath the water's surface, the cast of Mamma Mia! is unaware they're living in an equally noxious ABBA-rich environment. However, they've all evolved a survival mutation--in moments of emotional stress, their gaze steadies with frightening sincerity and they burst into song, no matter how inappropriate this warbling may be.
It's a shame about that mutation thing, because Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has got so much going for her otherwise. She's Botticelli-pretty, beautifully voiced, engaged to marry, and spends her days in the rustic Mediterranean hotel run by her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep). Seems Mom got stranded here on some magical mystery tour when one of the three swains she was, uh, "courting" knocked her up, a detail Sophie discovers in Mom's diary to the strains of "Honey, Honey" ("And now I know what they mean/ you're a love machine," Sophie squeals, clutching the book to her chest. Um, this is your dad we're talking about, right?)
Sophie's eager to be given away by her father, so, without Donna's knowledge, she sends each man--Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, and Pierce Brosnan--an invitation to her wedding. If you predict that hijinks ensue, it does not mean you are psychic. It means you have seen too many movies where adults repeatedly misunderstand situations that would be transparent to a room full of first-graders, and where people will fall into the water while fully dressed. Director Phyllida Lloyd has the bright idea to ensure all the Anglo-Saxon characters' activities are surrounded by a (get it?) Greek chorus of thick-waisted women in housedresses and monobrows, and swarthy guys carrying baskets of feta and goats slung over their shoulders. They smile mutely and radiate the simpleton good cheer of a spaghetti sauce commercial, clumping along behind the leads as they "sing" their hearts out with all the subtlety of an episode of The Benny Hill Show.
Does Marni Nixon feel a tremor in her bones like Peter Parker's spider-sense when some ill-suited actor attempts to tackle the libretto themselves? Poor gal must have been vibrating like a tuning fork during the filming of this movie, as Streep squeezes out a tense and strangled croak in song after torturous song. Brosnan doesn't fare much better with his wispy castrato, but at least Christine Baranski (as Donna's friend Tanya) knows how to work a crowd. Baranski's not exactly adding range to her résumé playing a tipsy and vampish older woman, but her contralto is smooth and appropriately brassy, and when she flashes her eyes and teeth in her one big number--"Does Your Mother Know?," here rewritten for a woman rebuffing a younger man--she looks like she's having fun. Unlike Streep, who murders "Money, Money, Money" by rolling around her villa like someone's mother flailing her way through a game of charades after too many Rob Roys.
Maybe there's a tendency to come down extra hard on movie adaptations of musicals, because musicals by nature are the big, tumbling sheepdog puppies of theater. They're shameless in their desire to please, turning somersaults for the audience's enjoyment in a simple and unabashed way that even the most sensationalistic movies find undignified. But consider the movie musicals that do work, like West Side Story and Chicago and Dreamgirls, and how they've found a way to plead for the audience's adoration without sounding like a drunk dial. Think of that granddaddy of jukebox musicals, Singin' in the Rain, and how Gene Kelly and company hovers light years above this sorry bunch. Think of the care with which that movie was constructed, and then consider the sloppy fact that Sophie's character is 20 years old, which means Donna's free-love escapade with the mustachioed and love-beaded men seen in flashback took place in the wild Summer of Love of . . . 1988? Any filmmaker who'd let that rotten part of her movie's foundation remain shows either a contemptuous disregard for the audience or the delusion that carefree and careless are the same thing. They're quite different, actually. But both are preferable to stupid.