World Hum Travel Movie Club: ‘Mamma Mia!’
Travel Blog • Eva Holland, Eli Ellison • 01.09.09 | 5:18 PM ET
Here’s the set-up: Bride-to-be Sophie has three possible biological fathers, and all three have come from around the world—along with an international cast of oddball friends—to her destination wedding on a tiny Greek Island. The result? The year’s biggest travel-musical-comedy.
Since it sashayed onto the big screen this past summer, “Mamma Mia!”—the movie adaptation of the hit ABBA-themed musical—has smashed sales records and garnered some award nominations, too. World Hum Travel Movie Clubbers Eli Ellison and Eva Holland took the disc for a spin.
Subject: Not diggin’ the dancing queen
Let’s begin with a few questions I jotted down while my ears bled to the tune of ABBA’s “Chiquitita.”
“Worse than the Bee Gees/Peter Frampton Sgt. Pepper’s movie?”
“Pierce Brosnan: blackmailed into doing this?”
“Why is Eva torturing me?”
Answers: 1) a toss up 2) without a doubt 3) I honestly don’t know, but whatever I’ve done, please forgive me.
Well, it took me all of five minutes to understand this movie is not aimed at me. From hyper-teen squealing and giggling to middle-age girl power and the insufferable glitter pop of ABBA, oh Eva, it was all so frighteningly energetic. If I’d seen this in a movie theater, I’d have bolted for the lobby and ordered an extra large bucket of hot-buttered barbiturates
Look, I love a good musical and I don’t suffer from chick-flick-a-phobia. So unlike most men, I wasn’t dreading my DVD date with “Mamma.” I pressed “play” expecting a lightweight story with fun song-n-dance numbers. “Mamma Mia!” delivers on the cotton candy plot. The singing and dancing? Um, not so much.
Meryl Streep (oh Meryl, why?!) has a decent set of pipes, as do Amanda Seyfried and Christine Baranski. Too bad they weren’t given better dialogue to speak between the 20-plus ABBA tunes. As for Pierce Brosnan’s now infamous warbling, it seems he’s exchanged his 007 license to kill for a license to kill music.
The choreography, if you can call it that, draws much inspiration from early 80s MTV videos. That’s a bad thing. “Dancing Queen” is Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video GONE WILD in Greece. Parts of “Money, Money, Money” play like a bizarre cross between Duran Duran’s “Rio” video and a menopausal homage to “Titanic.” And as for the chorus line of “mantastic” Greek hard bodies dancing on a pier in scuba fins, words fail me.
I could go on with bad jokes, but we need to talk about “Mamma Mia!” as travel flick. So what about it? The movie was filmed on the Greek islands of Skopelos and Skiathos. Sadly, I’ve never visited Greece, so I looked forward to a bit of widescreen travel porn. The islands are certainly beautiful, but the awkward camera work, epileptic editing and weird lighting are so bad, it could’ve been shot on a soundstage against a green screen and I’d have been none the wiser.
Sure, you’ve got the wonderful aerial shots of boats sailing across the golden-sun-dappled Aegean Sea. But they never gave me a real feel for the island. I never felt like I was there. No sense of place. What do you think? Am I being too hard on the director? Is my desire for realism misplaced? Am I missing the destination wedding fantasy gene?
I know “Mamma Mia!” is camp, and the movie is obviously self-aware in that respect, but I just can’t get over the shoddy filmmaking on screen. Must I be an ABBA fan to see past it and surrender to the joys of “Super Trouper”?
Subject: Knowing me, knowing you
Well, Eli, I can’t say I’m surprised to hear that you weren’t diggin’ the dancing queen (or having the time of your life, for that matter), and I’m sure your socks won’t be knocked off, either, when I admit that I was happily tapping my toes and bobbing my head through most of the flick.
You’re right that this movie isn’t really aimed at you—though I don’t think one necessarily needs to be an ABBA devotee to enjoy it. But you’re also right that it’s a flawed example of its genre. My issue isn’t so much with the over-the-top musical numbers, which I thoroughly enjoyed (though your description of “Money, Money, Money” is bang on, now that I think about it) but with that puffball plot.
Here’s my beef: “Mamma Mia!” spends an hour and a half building up tension in half-a-dozen subplots—there’s mother-daughter friction, bride-groom friction, and of course three different potential dads wreaking havoc among mothers, daughters, and token female friends alike—and then, in a few minutes of unlikely, awkwardly-scripted action, it all unravels, far too quickly and neatly for my liking. I never thought I’d say this about a movie that’s maybe as far from “subtle” as you can get, but I actually think they could have done with a little more ham-fisted foreshadowing. All the tying-up-of-loose-ends that went on felt impossibly contrived; if the script had dropped more hints along the way, it would have felt predictable, sure, but at least my suspension of disbelief wouldn’t have been disrupted. (Said suspension being crucial to the enjoyment of a movie like this, of course.)
Okay, so the ending let me down—but, as I said, I was blissed out through the first 90 minutes. What went right?
First off, you can never go wrong with Meryl Streep. Could anyone else bring depth and warmth to a character this cartoonish, while repeatedly being forced to don bejewelled (well, besequined, at least) spandex onesies no less? Amanda Seyfried, as daughter Sophie, was another standout for me. I’ve seen Seyfried in action twice before (both times as a Buxom Blonde Space Cadet, in “Mean Girls” and “Alpha Dog”) and am glad she’s put her sidekick days behind her. Meanwhile, there’s Pierce Brosnan. Yeah, the dude really could wither flowers on the vine with his singing, but didn’t you want to give him props (even just a little?) for putting himself out there anyway?
As far as the travel porn factor goes with this one, I’m on the fence. You’re right that the islands didn’t seem quite as vivid and alive as I’d hoped; they came off better, I think, in (don’t laugh) “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2,” last summer’s other romantic-comedy-in-the-Greek-islands. But I think part of that was a result of the movie’s overall disconnection from reality: “Mamma” is pure fantasy, and maybe in a fantasy world, a tiny Greek island doesn’t need anything more than some heartbreakingly blue water, plenty of bright laundry hung out to dry, and frolicking dancers aplenty?
Of course, on my Greek fantasy island, there’d be a lot more of the scuba-finned bachelor-party-goers, and fewer father figures. But that’s another story.
Plot tension? We’re talking about an ABBA movie, not “The Godfather Part II.” But okay, I’ll play along. Yes, the end was ridiculous, but I thought you would’ve liked everything wrapped up in a contrived bow, with a bare-chested Sky (Dominic Cooper) slow-mo dancing in the Aphrodite fountain to boot.
You wanted more foreshadowing? Eva, from the moment Pierce Brosnan stepped ashore, I knew his character’s fate. Though I must admit, I never saw Colin Firth’s character twist coming. Speaking of the three dads, I do give “Mamma Mia!” props for making one of them a travel writer. He spent, what, two days on the island? You know, in the eyes of some publishers, this makes him qualified to write a 300-page guidebook to the Greek isles.
Don’t get me wrong on Pierce. His singing wouldn’t have advanced him past the first week of “American Idol.” But I actually enjoyed his numbers. They provided laughs in a script that offered few. Also, I agree Meryl is terrific. She’s arguably the best actress of the modern era and really can do anything. Why the French Lieutenant’s Woman chose to don a sequined jumpsuit and belt out “Waterloo,” I haven’t a clue.
I really do feel this is a poor travel movie and I totally disagree with you that I need not be an ABBA junkie to enjoy it. I think if I owned “ABBA Gold” (which I’m sure you do), I too would’ve been tapping my toes and bobbing my head in blissed out denial of the disaster on screen.
Gotta run. There’s an Elvis movie marathon on TV today. Boy, some of those Elvis flicks sure do stink. But last time I checked, he can actually sing and dance.
Subject: Thank you for the music
Geez, Eli, tell me what you really think!
I’ll admit, I’m not the least gullible tool in the shed, and my record on movie-ending-predictions is worse than Brosnan’s warbling, but I genuinely didn’t see most of the denouement coming. I was as puzzled as Sophie about who her real dad was, and just as clueless as any of the characters about what fate would bring them in the end. I did know one thing, though: that they’d end the whole spectacle with one more big song-and-dance number.
You ask what Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan are doing in a silly piece of fluff like “Mamma Mia!”—isn’t it possible that they signed on, not thanks to blackmail or a mild stroke, but for the absurd, over-the-top, sequined fun of it all? Sure, the dancing’s bad and the singing is (mostly) worse. But I had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t the only one enjoying myself; that the middle-aged cast was also getting a kick out of it. If there’s a deeper meaning or message to “Mamma Mia!” (yes, I’m going there), isn’t it that we all need to let loose once in a while (or be more spontaneous, as Colin Firth’s character would put it), and have fun no matter how silly we look?
Look, “Mamma Mia!” is a bit like an all-inclusive resort vacation: a brief retreat into pure, happy hedonism. (Only instead of a week-long hangover afterwards, I’ll have the lyrics to “I Have a Dream” stuck in my head for days.) Now, that kind of vacation is some people’s idea of hell—but if you’re able to let go and enjoy it on its own terms, it can be a darn good time.
I know it’s flawed and foolish, but “Mamma Mia!” made me smile. And for that I say, thank you for the music, for giving it to me…