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Thursday
Sep 27 2018

Months of Meryl: Mamma Mia! (2008)

JohnandMattheware watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.

#39 —Donna Sheridan,a dancing queen,hotelier,and single mother of a bride-to-be.

MATTHEW: When it comes to motion picture musicals,the old adage certainly holds true — they really don't make them like they used to.But when it comes toMamma Mia!,the 2008 cinematic adaptation of the long-running jukebox stage show/certified cash cow that's still chugging along on the West End and in numerous cities across the globe,one could justifiably say that they,thankfully,never made them quite likethis.

Structured around the music of ABBA,the story is thin but not automatically dire,at least on paper: Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) is an unusually deceptive 20-year-old engaged to be married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) and living on the fictitious,picturesque Greek island of Kalokairi,where her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) owns and operates a modest yet crumbling hotel...

Reared by Donna for her entire life,Sophie has never been made privy to the identity of her birth father,which is just as her headstrong mother prefers it.But Sophie considers this absence a personal lack,which is what compels her to invite three of Donna's ex-boyfriends (Pierce Brosnan,Colin Firth,and Stellan Skarsgård) to her impending nuptials,in the hopes of finding out which of these men,whom mom dated in quick succession around the time of her conception,is her real dad;their arrival throws the entire celebration into chaos and gives Donna,in particular,a great deal of renewed personal strife.

Again,the premise ofMamma Mia!doesn't immediately signal disaster.Sure,screenwriter Catherine Johnson,who also penned the book for the stage production,keeps shoehorning those ABBA songs into her script,no matter their bewildering narrative incongruity.Confectionary divertissements have been made from equally slim material so why should this be any different?

Yet as directed by Phyllida Lloyd,an experienced veteran of the original stage show who has won greatest acclaim for a recent trilogy of all-women Shakespeare revivals,Mamma Mia!becomes one of the final nails in the coffin of a once-glorious film genre.This is,from beginning to end,a merry musical catastrophe that tries to mask its lack of preparation,which is really to say its lack of imagination and basic cinematic craftsmanship,as moment-to-moment spontaneity.The deplorable amateurishness of Lloyd's filmmaking only grows grimmer as the "plot"thickens,offering nothing more than overqualified actors running through sub-Zumba dance moves and performing throaty karaoke renditions of pop gems in depthless images of beaches and piers that are not so much sun-kissed as sun-blasted.In any given shot,there is at least one actor,dancer,or background villager peering around with bug-eyed stupefaction,as though wondering,"Are wereallyplaying it this way?"

What,then,is Streep doing here,looking utterly ravishing and having nothing short of an out-and-out blast?The actress hasspokenbefore about how taking her children to a matinee of the Broadway production single-handedly revived her spirits in the weeks after September 11th: "We all went out of the theatre floating on the air.I thought,‘What a gift to New York right now.'"When it came time to turn this commercial juggernaut into a movie,Streep,who had previously sent a "thank you"note to Lloyd and producer Judy Craymer after seeing the production,was an obvious choice for the world-weary but still-kicking songstress Donna.(Streep claims her 2006 Shakespeare in the Park performance inMother Courage and Her Children,which Craymer attended,sealed the deal — as if Meryl Fucking Streep needed to prove a goddamn thing to the minds behindMamma Mia!)

But what is it exactly that convinced Streep to loan her virtuosity tothisparticular project?"It's a requirement of popular culture that you strike an ironic distance,"she toldThe Guardianin 2008."[Mamma Mia!] doesn't.It's a film about women and their whole experiences being hopeful and youthful and older and suffering the regrets that you have over a long life.It's visceral and I love that."

It makes sense that Streep is nothing short of a peppy team player,especially when cackling,screeching,and gesticulating through her scenes with gal pals Julie Walters and Christine Baranski.She also effortlessly counterbalances the painful earnestness of Brosnan,playing Donna's One That Got Away,with perfectly stone-faced prickliness.On the whole,she fares better with the movie's comedic components than its musical requirements,as lax and undemanding as they are.("You have a boat?Good,get on it!"she squawks in one killer rejoinder to Skarsgård upon encountering all three of her long-gone ex-beaus in her villa's decrepit goat house.) But she still looks like she's feigning emotions on multiple occasions,not least of all when forced to strike endless poses of lusty pining in the ineptly-staged title song and "S.O.S."or,later on,waving and lunging in the wind during the kiss-off of "The Winner Takes It All,"a scene under-conceived and under-directed yet again by Lloyd.

If there's one redeeming element to all of these missteps it's Streep's sweet-and-scolding chemistry with Seyfried.This side of the character,the ambivalent but eternally loving mother,is what Streep seems to connect most to,which is perhaps why "Slipping Through My Fingers,"in which Donna prepares Sophie for a wedding she can't fully support in a truly inspired matching of song to scenario,is the lone scene in the entire movie that rings true.


What do you make of Streep's not entirely satisfying but no less bella Donna?(It should also be noted that this century has yet to produce a more cogent or cutting piece of film criticism than French and Saunders' gut-bustingspoofofMamma Mia!)

JOHN: I've laid all my love on Meryl Streep and now,chiquitita,I'll tell you the truth:Whatever happened to our love?I wish I understood;it used to be so nice,it used to be so good.I feel compelled,like a criminal on the stand,to inform the jury that I love Meryl Streep,I've danced/jived/had the time of my life listening to ABBA's stellar discography,and,fromMeet Me in St.LouistoDancer in the Dark,I treasure dexterously-made,consummately-performed movie musicals.Nonetheless,Mamma Mia!squanders all of its goodwill as quickly as possible,resulting in a film as jumbled as a game of Mad Libs and as adept as a middle school theater production.

From the moment chipmunk-chipper Amanda Seyfried greets her besties at the dock and lays out her diabolical plan to meet her father,you expect hyperbolic comedy strung together as little more than filler between ABBA's greatest hits.Okay,fine.But nothing quite prepares you for the sight of such misfires as an adult black man in a diaper,or the constant use of laundry and funky boas as mise-en-scène,or Pierce Brosnan's haggard renditions,or the truly unspeakable "Lay All Your Love on Me"softcore waterfront fantasia.Phyllida Lloyd blocks actors,Haris Zambaroukos shoots them,and Lesley Walker edits them as if they anticipated audiences would be too sozzled to keep track of spatial,temporal,and emotional logic,chugging along a preposterous story and humanoid characters with a vision,simply,ofFun on a Greek Island!and foreseeing the large paychecks the musical's popularity would guarantee.

Inserting Streep into your inept film usually results in either two scenarios: she will either go down with the ship and embarrass herself,or she will single-handedly lend the film its entire reason for being.InMamma Mia!,Streep manages total,almost maniacal,commitment to her godawful material,singing and cavorting with the energy of an adrenalized kindergartener,and yet unsurprisingly affording the film a semblance of emotional truth and artistic legitimacy,steering it away,somehow,from total catastrophe.

Streep is unmistakably hamming it up to a degree she is rarely permitted,unstewarded in the slightest by anyone behind or in front of the camera.The script's absurd mechanics often have her playing ten motivations a minute,like in the titular number,in which Streep seems aghast at her ex-lovers' random appearance in her villa yet also excited,even aroused,to have them back yetalsoregretful of her own impulses,trying her damndest to characterize what is essentially a scene derived entirely from nondescript lyrics.But through her unflagging exuberance,Streep manages to enliven Donna's romantic regret and present-day titillation,treating her viewers to an unfiltered burst of personality,sans any depth or form of "character."And her interpretation of "Slipping Through My Fingers"is a charitable act that briefly rescues her younger co-star's lunatic performance,and a rare instance of an ABBA song complementing,rather than contorting,a scene.

Mamma Mia!made buckets of money in 2008;its $600 million international haul easily makes it Streep's highest-grossing movie worldwide.Though I cannot,as Streep claimed,deemMamma Mia!"visceral,"it is heartening to see a film (partly) about an older woman contemplating her life choices fare this well at the box office.Clearly,this underserved demographic is what drew Streep to the film and further influenced how she shaped the performance: her Donna is a woman reflecting on the loves she has lost amid a period of distressing,late-age change.It is encouraging to watch Streep,at age 59,enter her 60s with a newfound sense of unabashed pleasure and purpose,even if the films themselves frequently have us sending out an S.O.S.

previously on Months of Meryl

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Reader Comments (24)

What an atrocity.The apoplectic camera can't even frame a memorable shot of beautiful Greece.Meryl is an over-spicy sun-baked ham.Brosnan's singing makes us appreciate Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon.It's not a total loss.Dominic Cooper is in a bathing suit.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

The French/Saunders parody is incredible.My favorite bit is the "Scrub the Floor/Wash the Windows/Dry Your Hands/Point"choreography.I was at a wedding last weekend and started doing it when Dancing Queen came on,but then the whole dance floor followed my lead.If only they knew....

But wowwww this film is a messsss.I'm still shocked the sequel was randomly so good.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commenterchasm301

the first thing i did after reading this was rewatch the entire French & Saunders spoof and you're right.I think it should have won the Pulitzer for Criticism.It's endlessly rewatchable and hilarious and just so razor sharp about everything that needs to be lampooned.

September 27,2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I always feel like critics take this movie way too seriously.Like "Grease"it is just a fun musical.I think you are minimizing the fact that it too was wildly successful because it made millions of people happy,including kids.To pick it apart and act superior seems like a waste of time.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I agree,Lloyd should have never direct this musical (or any musical for that matter).

This is also probably the worst Streep performance I've seen.I'm glad she had fun,but just because the actress is laughing and enyoing herself and chewing scenery like crazy does not mean that everyone else (audience included) is having such a good time as well

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commenterpawel

This (endless) series has made me realize the alarming number of awful movies in Meryl's career.I swear I wasn't aware.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I LOVE Mamma Mia!with all my heart.It'll be written on my grave.
That's all.8)

September 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Grumpy killjoys!Mamma Mia!made $609 million and to date the sequel has made $388 million.In combination,that is almost $1 billion and it will get there soon enough.Give ABBA some credit where it's due.Streep is fun in this movie,and I think that was the appeal.And yes,I like the spoof and the movie.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSister Rona Barrett

Whenever anyone tells me "Meryl can do no wrong",my response is always: "She fucking did Mamma Mia!!!"Seriously,as soon as I saw how ridiculous and amateurish Meryl looks in this film (minus the Slipping Through My Fingers scene,which is actually quite beautifully performed),I've had a visceral hatred for this musical that has only worsened as I've come to appreciate ABBA and have become saddened by the fact that most people will associate those songs with...THIS.Also,after watching these characters handled so much better in the sequel (with a director that actually knows how to frame a musical number for the big screen,as well as a writing team with a stronger sense of comedic pacing and characters made to struggle and feel actual emotions,thus making the cornier moments feel earned),I find this first film even more painful to watch.

I don't consider it the worst musical ever made,not when Grease is right there telling girls to slut up so their men will love them back (I will say this for Mamma Mia,it's harmless...Grease actually does some harm)...

September 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

A fun and amazing film despite the atrocious singing of Pierce Brosnan.It sounds like he's trying to take a shit.Really 007.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Even Meryl Streep could not save this movie.That being said,my mother loved it!

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Amateurish movie...but it sure made a lot of people happy..I know a lot of friends who saw it twice.and some even more.i agree with Tom Ford about it being overly scrutinized.There awesome pics that just need to be let alone.This was a flimsy script to begin with.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdg

gentlemen,thank you for your dead-on take on this execrable movie."fun movies"should still be made by somebody who knows the basics like where to put a camera and how not to push actors into endless mugging.meryl's only embarrassing performance.and thanks for sending me to the French and Saunders parody...genius,and so much more fun than the actual movie!

September 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

fully agree with nathaniel re the pulitzer prize.it is one of french and saunders's best works.i LOVE miranda hart as phyllida lloyd "that's the first rule of film...apparently..."

September 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

It's not a bad performance just nothing stands out about it and anything that does stand out is bad in every way but what can you hold against a musical that made the USA re embrace ABBA and made people leave the cinema happy,most of the folk who saw this probably only know post Prada meryl anyway.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

This is not the way to embrace ABBA.Best way--crank the Spotify.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I dun ustand the harshness agst Mamma Mia!?Its a ditzy feelgood sugary pop bonbon peppered w ABBA's classics.Its meant to make audiences happy,laugh n hav a good time.It's not out to be serious or win any Oscar.

Give yoself a break n juz enjoy the silliness of it all.It's not real life..Its escapism!

PS: I too adore J Saunders send-up of Meryl's Donna!!♥ She really deserves an award for her hilarious spot-on comic turn!!

September 27,2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

OK,here's the thing.It's OK to like this movie.It's alright to think it's fun.Fine.But it's not good.That's what we're saying.Sigh and exhausted.I love Airport 1975.It's still not good.

September 27,2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Good grief she was in her 50's and started a franchise.The thing I like about Streep is she has broken all the rules.For acting,for women.Of course we groan at Pierce but this movie is a delicious mess.I love the opening with Amanda,the cruise ship fantasy,slipping through my fingers,the end.

September 28,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJAL

I was so distracted by a certain Senate hearing that I did not feel able to read,enjoy,and comment on this article.But the time has come to change the subject in my whirling brain and have some fun.
Which is exactly why Mamma Mia made 600 million bucks and it's sequel is over the 300 million threshold.Sometimes this world can be so awful that we need a little escapist fun.Streep recognized that appeal and gave herself over to it in this musical.

Is it a film that is so bad that it's good?Yes,watching Pierce Brosnan warble is painful,but somehow it's so bad it became funny and rather endearing.Also,we have the trio,Streep,Brasinski,and Walters cavorting around.And just to pull on the heartstrings there is the justifiably lauded,"Slipping through your fingers".

Mamma Mia is really a parody of a musical which is why the French and Saunders version is more of a companion piece.Ideally both casts should have merged for the sequel,but maybe that could happen if they ever do a third movie...?(in my reality this will happen)

Finally,I love the range of musical numbers that Streep has sung in her career.Starting with Amazing Grace in Silkwood,to country rock in Postcards from the Edge,and continuing on.Sondheim to Abba and everything in between.I cherish every vocal performance Meryl Streep gives us,she clearly loves singing.(Whew,on today of all days,I really needed a little Mamma Mia).
Thanks.

September 28,2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Still better and more fun than some of the musicals this site heaps praise on and made a ton of money.
I love Streep in this because she just does not care and at her age in her career is having the time of her life.

September 28,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Oh come on,This movie is just pure trashy fun.I love it!It's bad,yes.It's horribly filmed,lit and edited.But we sometimes watch movie to escape from reality.We can't be enjoying the likes of 2001 Space Odyssey,or Ida or In the mood for love (all of which I LOVE as well) ALL THE TIME...we need to watch some trashy movies on other occasions.Same for music and books as well.Hate to take ourselves too seriously!

September 28,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

I have always laughed AT Mamma Mia much more than I've laughed WITH it,and it's definitely become a so-bad-it's-good camp classic for me.But then "Slipping Through My Fingers"comes around,and it's so shockingly effective.For all that Meryl's performance is overblown (GOOD GOD Jennifer Saunders's parody is PERFECT) and the film is half-assed,that one scene really works.I really love Meryl's feistiness towards the three guys in the early going of the movie,but she doesn't navigate the shift between that and the lovestruck softness she displays after the wedding well AT ALL.Part of that is the breakneck pacing of the thing,but her overplaying really doesn't help matters.

But her singing voice is lovely (despite the cheap karaoke tracks the film uses) and she's clearly having a ball,which is infectious.

September 28,2018 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

This is one of the worst directed movies I've ever seen but I LOVE Streep doing The Winner Takes It All.

September 29,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

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