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“Who cares if Brosnan can’t hit the high notes?”
Meryl Streep gives a bravura performance as Donna, the innkeeper of “Mama Mia!,” a faithful screen adaptation of the ABBA-based musical of the same name that has played on stages worldwide for the past several years. In addition to acting, she excels at physical comedy, dance, and singing. That would normally be exceptional, because Streep, although trained in music, did not make her name in musical comedy. But the same is true of the entire cast. There isn’t a clinker in the company. There are very few nits to pick with “Mama Mia!,” which may well become the feelgood movie of Summer 2008. Streep is well matched by Christine Baranski (Tanya) and Julie Waters (Rosie), as erstwhile members of an all-girl pop trio.
The soundtrack cannot be beat. The ABBA tunes, although thoroughly rooted in the 1970s, are excellent music and not the easiest for singers. “Dancing Queen” has a three octave range. As with the play, the audience leaves the theater humming the tunes… just like the best musicals of yore.
In the transition from play to movie, helmer Phyllidia Lloyd (who directed stage productions in London and New York) took advantage of the scope afforded by film to expand on the choreography using expressionistic imagination sequences to build on some of the production numbers. Others benefit from physical comedy that can only be hinted at on stage. Film also made it possible to move exposition to some opening scenes that otherwise slow down the onstage action in the play. Writer Catherine Johnson missed not a beat in adapting her script for the big screen. In fact, some of the jokes in the movie are funnier than in the play.
The plot is basically an excuse to string together ABBA’s best tunes in a movie. Yet with such excellent performances all around, a firm hand at the throttle, and wonderfully economical editing by Lesley Walker – not to mention ravishingly beautiful location shots in Greece – plot weakness is easy to ignore.
Twenty-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), about to marry, invites to her wedding the three men her mother’s (Streep as Donna) diary indicates could be her dad. (The mailbox scene almost looks as if it belongs in “A Letter to Three Wives.”) Her mother is unsure. She also doesn’t know about the invitations. It is a tribute to the filmmakers that no one questions why DNA testing is not at issue. “Mama Mia!” simply beguiles the audience into total suspension of disbelief.
The three, Pierce Brosnan as architect Sam Carmichael, Colin Firth as prosperous banker Harry Bright, and Bill, a travel writer played by Stellan Skarsgård, make an unlikely Three Stooges. Firth’s uptight banker is a wonderful counterpoint to Skarsgård’s loosey-goosey world traveler, while Brosnan wonderfully projects a mixture of ego, hope, and humility tempered by experience.
The pic is long on sight gags – from Streep’s phallic cordless drill to a pair of tattoos on Skarsgård’s tush – all of which work. The latter may be the only objection brought by overly sensitive parents to this PG-13 rated opus. There is nary a curse word, no explicit sex, and no other private parts in view. In a nod to multiculturalism, minority players get some featured screen time. In other words, “Mama Mia!” needs no excuse to be a family outing.
Now for the nits: A slightly shaky lip-synch mars one of Seyfried’s early numbers. Brosnan barely hits the high notes in his first solo – he’s about a quarter tone flat, but in context it works. It’s both hilarious and believable, so who cares? Streep, Baranski, and Waters are not only musically excellent – as a former pop trio ought to be – but they also have fabulous diction. It’s very easy to understand the lyric even when the instrumental track gets loud.
As a plus, the filmmakers ingeniously worked the play’s surprise ending into the film as a way to keep the audience in their seats for the credits. It works, and at a total run time of 108 minutes, it fits.
Technical credits are excellent. Universal Pictures should have no trouble recouping its estimated $65 million investment with dividends.