Friday, July 11, 2008

Take a Chance on ABBA

Mamma Mia! is a movie that, for the most part, succeeds purely in spite of itself. Phyllida Lloyd, the director of the Broadway stage version - it originated on London's West End - takes the reigns of this cinematic version in her film directorial debut and it clearly shows. There are plenty of rookie mistakes in Mamma Mia!, mistakes that I can't help but suspect may have easily been rectified if the producers had the foresight to hire an actual cinematic director. Of course, sometimes these sort of problems arise no matter who directs - take The Producers '05 and Rent, one directed by the stage director and one by a man who had been making films for multiple decade, yet they both shared similar problems.

It is unfortunately easy to question the filmmakers' abilities when there are visual effects so poor that when characters are framed against the distant ocean and you can actually see the water effects cutting into the actors' body. The staging of almost all of Mamma Mia!'s (many) musical scenes are just rudimentary and workmanlike, very much like they were crafted by somebody who wasn't too sure of what they were actually doing and thus decided to go for the safe route. Many scenes are filled with only two different kinds of shots - closeups and wideshots. We're constantly treated to only one person's face or the entire nation of Greece supporting cast. It's all very strange. One got the feeling that Lloyd didn't quite know how to film a musical sequence, much like Christopher Columbus when he made Rent.

And the choreography is, for the most part, simplistic. Lots of running - seriously, almost every musical number involves characters running up hills, running across the beach, running down the pier, running down stairs, running into rooms, running everywhere - and kicking, none of which seems to be in time (perhaps that is meant to be "charm"?) It all just feels a bit... lazy. Lazy choreography, lazy visual effects, lazy direction. There are even random moments when the film goes into slow motion. Because nothing says "Dancing Queen" like slow motion running...?

And then you have Pierce Brosnan who, it must be said, gives one of the most bizarre performances I've seen in a long time on the big screen. I almost feel like he deserves a prize for being that openly bad. Alas, he doesn't, yet he is. Incredibly bad. His acting scenes aren't exactly earth shattering - his scenes are always set up the exact same way, he comes running into frame saying "Donna!" - but his singing is, and I'm sorry if this is childishly offensive, woeful. Utterly woeful. The audience I saw the film with openly laughed at him. One song towards the end is butchered so badly I couldn't even recognise what song it was! Turns out it was "When All Is Said and Done", apparently. And his duet with Meryl Streep, "SOS" is ruined by his weird angry singing. It's mindboggling. The moment he opens his mouth it's like a bad Australian Idol audition.

But, speaking of Meryl Streep, here's where the film redeems itself. The cast, outside of Brosnan, is fantastic. Streep is clearly having a blast with the material and in the first half of the film she appears to have obviously had a few Chardies before leaving her trailer. And in the second and more dramatic half she really brings out the drama. She makes the abrupt about face that the film has seem plausible and warranted. Her rendition of "Slipping Through My Fingers" with Amanda Seyfried was the film's highlight for me.

Thankfully the majority of the film's music is performed by the female cast. Amanda Seyfriend's vocals are far less generic than I had anticipated. There's some really nice work there. Christine Baranski was also a highlight, and her highly camp version of "Does Your Mother Know" rescues the film from the Brosnan brutality of "SOS" just minutes earlier. Julie Walters is a hoot as usual and it's a shame her duet with Stellan Skarsgaard, "Take a Chance on Me" is upstaged by the surrounding goings on.

Skarsgaard comes out tops amongst the men even though he only gets the one opportunity to sing. Colin Firth's bizarre last minute character flip proves offputting even while remaining a crumpet (he's better looking in person, I must add). Dominic Cooper is a hottie, sure, but he is barely featured outside of a strangely PG-erotic version of "Lay Your Love On Me".

The Greek scenery is to die for, obviously, and if there's one upside of Lloyd's direction it is that she was at least able to transport the musical sequences around, unlike Rent or The Producers - films I actually like, I must add - which didn't utilise the cinema at all.

After all of this it really must sound like I didn't think much of the film, but that's not entirely true. Yes, it's sloppily made and there are more flaws than I care to point out, but the main reason anybody saw the original stage musical and now the film is the music. The songs by ABBA are the centrepiece, and they still work a treat. How could they not? They're ABBA. They're pretty hard to turn into garbage, after all. Throw in the spirited performances and the gorgeous scenery - even if it is blandly photographed - and they make for some of the breeziest two hours I've had recently at a cinema.

As a film I'm sure it deserves no more than a C, but for pure cinematic fluff I'm going to give it a B-


Dame James Henry said...

I must say that I was worried after seeing the play a couple of months ago and I absolutely hated it (and I'm a huge ABBA fan). Now, after reading your review, what I feared would happen has come true: they simply took the Broadway show and filmed it. Since when does Hollywood have to be so nice and give the director's job to original director of the stage production? Don't they realize that it rarely ever works. Ugh, I'm so disappointed now (even though I'll still go see it on opening weekend though). At least Meryl is there to save the day.

adam k. said...

I think this will turn out to be what I originally thought: a modestly successful piece of fluff that nets Meryl a GG nomination but not much else. Box office will probably be somewhere between $60 and $120 mill... it could fail spectacularly, or be a huge breakout hit, but I see neither happening.

No oscar attention to speak of, I think. But it should set up Meryl for a slam dunk with Doubt , assuming it's any good.