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Meryl Streep's truly astonishing performance in Mamma Mia! reminds us that acting and singing are two different things. Make that, "acting and entertaining." Ms Streep does plenty of both in this movie, but what saves her from the extreme embarrassment into which you expect it to tip is her keen awareness of the difference. Acting seeks to slip the performer behind a magical illusion. Entertainment hopes to infect us with the performer's enthusiasm. When she sings, in Mamma Mia!, she does not act. She may, especially in "The Winner Takes It All," sing with a great deal of emotional display. But if she were acting, she would be unwatchable. Especially because she is Meryl Streep.
On its surface, Mamma Mia! is impudent rubbish that dares you denounce it — knowing full well that you'll only make a fool of yourself if you try. What can you have been expecting? Were musical calories ever emptier than ABBA's? With its ecclesiastical sonorities pumped up as if on a one-stop organ, and its lyrics denatured by the rash attempt to write pop in a foreign language — I cannot conceive of the innocence (or ignorance) that would have permitted any Anglophone, in the Seventies, to have addressed an anthem on youthful freshness to a "dancing queen" — ABBA was so intergalactically all-purpose and simple that it sounded not quite human; today's ear would unquestioningly attribute it to some audio counterpart of Pixar. The songs are "fun," in the way that it's fun sometimes to pretend that the things that we fun when you were eleven still are. To build a musical comedy on such material is so wrong-headed that it' cheeky.
And to make a movie of such a musical comedy is transcendentally cheeky. If I were more industrious, I could link here to my as-yet-unwritten essay on the appeal of the old Fred Astaire movies, which operate at a temperature that is cool enough to encourage dreaming — arguably the whole purpose of film. Hot musicals (as Fox found out in the aftermath of Hello, Dolly!) usually fail, because the enthusiasm to which I referred is difficult to transmit to people who are not actually in the same room, especially when one is trying hard. I was drawn, mothlike, to see Mamma Mia! by a belief that Meryl Streep could save the production from suffocation by its own greenhouse gases.
When I say that my faith was not disappointed, that's not to suggest that Mamma Mia! is anything but impudent rubbish. But is engaging, almost fascinating rubbish. A performer less gifted than Ms Streep might have taken the money and hammed it up, but instead she sings. We knew that she could. We learned it first, perhaps, from the surprising final minutes of Postcards From the Edge. Dusty recollection was confirmed by Prairie Home Companion. Ms Streep has a good voice, a country-music voice really — a default white-American voice. It may be odd to hear Pierce Brosnan sing — to discover that he can sing — but to the fact that nothing Ms Streep does is surprising we must add a natural comfort with singing well that, unlike Sophie's accent, cannot have been studied. It is pleasant to hear her sing almost precisely because her singing sounds so artless.
And because the singing is artless and natural, we don't look at the actress in close-up as if she were an American Idol wannabe. Meryl Streep looks pretty good, of course. But she does not look young. There were moments when I felt deep sympathy with Gen X despair: will these Boomers never die? On the evidence of Mamma Mia!, not anytime soon. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski look even older, but they're also in the prime of life. (Where were they when Dolly Levy needed them?) Sashaying through "Take A Chance On Me" or "Does Your Mother Know," what these ladies are up to has little to do with youth. The trio of middle-aged men is not quite so comfortable, and for the most part we are spared the attempt of Stellan Skarsgård to join in the romp, and Colin Firth gets to sit most of it out as well. Mr Brosnan reminds us, eventually, that before he was James Bond he was a heartthrob with a fashionably reedy tenor.
As the young couple, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper are charming enough. Ms Seyfried makes the mistake, I think, of being a bit too eager (always the ingénue's downfall), but Mr Cooper smolders winningly, demonstrating that he is ready to follow in the footsteps of Rufus Sewell.
As befits a sunny movie shot on Grecian shores, Alex Van Vleet's choreography is energetic but stylistically relaxed, somewhat improvised and at times almost goofy. Phyllida Lloyd's direction does not linger on the dance scenes as she does on Meryl Streep's face, which is probably for the best. If you blink, you'll miss the moment when four guys wearing flippers join hands to do the danse des cygnets.
Mamma Mia! is one of those films, commonly called "guilty pleasures," that I quite liked but would never recommend. (July 2008)
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