I’ve said before that I consider film to be a mirror. A good movie will show you, and maybe even teach you, something about yourself and/or your world. But sometimes, especially when things aren’t going well, you don’t want to look in the mirror. You just want to take a vacation from reality to forget all your problems. Well, film can do that too. One movie that’s playing in the theaters right now that’s pretty divorced from reality is “Mamma Mia!,” a disco musical set in the Greek Isles.
You may not be able to afford a week of your life and several thousand dollars to escape, but for $9 (or up to $12 in some parts of the country) and two hours of your time, you can leave your worries behind, relax on a gorgeous Greek island in the middle of the Aegean, and get caught up in the light-hearted story about a 20-year-old girl attempting to find her father on the eve of her wedding. No mirrors; just light, escapist fun.
Like “Across the Universe,” my favorite movie of 2007, “Mamma Mia!” takes the songs from a popular music group and crafts a story around them. In this case, they take the disco music of ABBA, that very popular Swedish group from the late 1970s, and tell the story of Donna (Meryl Streep) who runs a tiny resort on an isolated Greek island and her 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) who is about to be married. Sophie would love nothing more than to have her father give her away at the wedding, but she doesn’t know who her father is. After finding her mother’s diary from the year she was born, Sophie discovers that her father could be one of three men: Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), or Bill (Stellan Skarsgård). Unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie invites the three men to her wedding hoping she’ll be able to figure out which of the three is her father.
Okay, we’ll start with the positive first. I really loved the cinematography. The Greek islands are just beautiful. There’s something about that blue Aegean in the Mediterranean sun that just takes your breath away. And DP Haris Zambarloukos captures those bright colors well. Also the music is catchy and upbeat. If you liked ABBA in the late 70s, there’s no reason you won’t like them now.
Unfortunately, though, not all the songs seem to work as well in this environment. For example, “Dancing Queen” is definitely better suited to a disco lounge with colorful lights and a mirror ball than to a Greek island populated by rustic natives. The same can be said for a number of the other songs.
There are notable exceptions though. Streep is pretty powerful in “The Winner Takes it All” as she sings to Sam, on a wind-swept cliff, regretting how their relationship didn’t work out twenty years earlier. I was also rather moved by “Slipping Through My Fingers,” also sung by Streep, when she laments her daughter growing up and gaining her independence from her. In my view, these more intimate moments are much better than the big production numbers like “Take a Chance,” “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “Dancing Queen,” “Dose Your Mother Know?” and “Money, Money, Money.”
The acting was uneven. Streep wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t her best, by far. She was much better in “Rendition.” And while we’re at it, Skarsgård was better in “Goya’s Ghosts,” Dominic Cooper (the bridegroom) was better in “The History Boys,” and Brosnan was better in “Seraphim Falls.” In fact, poor Brosnan, God bless him, just didn’t seem comfortable bursting into song. Is this his first musical? It takes a certain talent to make it seem natural to go back and forth between dialogue and song.
I felt several of the relationships just didn’t work well. In some cases, the way characters related to each other was rather unrealistic. That’s probably more the fault of the script than the acting.
Another disappointment was the natives of the island. They were colorful characters—or rather could have been—but they were not at all utilized. Rather they just served as the chorus, in the background. Streep’s character had lived on that island for 20 years, but wasn’t friends with a single Greek native. All of the characters, except for Donna and Sophie, traveled from other countries to attend the wedding.
Furthermore, there’s some confusion with the issue of time. Maybe I can’t do simple arithmetic, but something just doesn’t quite add up according to my calculations. Several references indicate that the era when Donna had the affairs with the three men was the 1960s. Her daughter is 20. Yet the setting of the wedding seems to be contemporary because there is a reference to the island being one of the last few places in the world to get a website. Either my subtraction sucks, or not one of the hundreds of people who worked on the film noticed an error of time. Oh well; like I said before, reality is irrelevant in this movie.
One thing that I did think was nice, though, was having the flag of Sweden fly from Bill’s yacht in honor of ABBA. Because despite everything, the songs are enjoyable. They were addictive three decades ago, and they still are. As much as I disliked the film as a whole, I can’t get some of those songs out of my head.
Sure, “Across the Universe” was a far, far better film. But if all you’re looking for is a mildly pleasant diversion from reality, you could do worse than “Mamma Mia!” If you don’t expect too much, you won’t be too disappointed.