Review: 'Mamma Mia! The Movie'

This loopy ABBA musical has Meryl Streep playing a superannuated American hippie running a funky hotel on a Greek island and preparing for her daughter's marriage.

Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures
Meryl Streep (center) plays an American hippie in this loopy ABBA musical.

Just when you thought you had finally expelled those infernally catchy ABBA songs from your head, here's "Mamma Mia! The Movie" to reinstall them all over again.

Based on the hit musical that opened a decade ago in London and has, seemingly, never stopped running anywhere, "Mamma Mia! The Movie" is a great big galumphing hoot. It's a classic example of the kind of film where the cast appears to be having a much better time than the audience. And yet there's something flabbergasting about it that keeps you watching. How often do you get to see Meryl Streep make a fool of herself? She's such a good actress that she makes her foolishness an integral part of her performance. She seems to be in on the joke, which makes it go down a lot easier. Now if only I was clear on what the joke is.

Streep plays Donna, a superannuated American hippie who, for the past 20 or so years, has run a funky hotel on a remote Greek island. Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to get married and, unbeknownst to her mother, has mailed invites to the three men in Donna's past whom she suspects of being her father. When the men arrive on the island, none having had any contact with Donna in decades, the fur quickly flies. Sophie thinks that by knowing her real dad, her life will finally fall into place. The problem is, not even Donna knows for sure. (Since the film is set in 1999, presumably DNA testing was not an option, or else the whole shebang could have culminated in an episode of "Dr. Phil.")

The three possible dads, equally clueless, are businessman Sam (Pierce Brosnan), gadabout Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and banker Harry (Colin Firth). At one time or another all are convinced they spawned Sophie.

The men's counterparts are Donna's visiting best friends Rosie (Julie Walters), a perpetual wisecracker, and serial divorcée Tanya (Christine Baranski). The three women once were members of a pop band called "Donna and The Dynamos," and they still carry on like rockers. In one especially madcap scene, they regroup the band and lead what looks like the entire female population of the island in a rousing rendition of "Dancing Queen." "Mamma Mia" is as loopy as a Bollywood musical.

There hasn't been such a female-centric movie since, well, "Sex and the City." (The squeals-per-minute quotient is about the same.) Director Phyllida Lloyd, screenwriter Catherine Johnson and coproducer Judy Craymer are all veterans of the "Mamma Mia" stage show and they know how to put the numbers across despite the fact that most of the cast members don't have the pipes and appear to be in possession of two, possibly three, left feet.

For aficionados of such things, I should point out that this movie is not quite in the rarefied company of "Paint Your Wagon" – which featured Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin tonelessly warbling – or "At Long Last Love," which pretty much soured Hollywood on the musical genre for years. No, watching "Mamma Mia! The Movie" is like being smothered with hearts and flowers. Streep certainly gives it the old college try and so do Walters and Baranski, who are experienced singer/dancers. Somehow they all end up looking just as flamboyantly amateurish as everybody else. But poor Pierce Brosnan. Sport that he is, he does his level best to be a song-and-dance man but it's just not in him. He's touchingly awful.

The same could probably be said for the entire movie. The sensual, sun-drenched Greek atmosphere has its molten allure, though, and those ABBA songs just won't let up. Is that "Dancing Queen" I hear you humming? Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for some sex-related comments.)

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