It’s tempting to say that Mamma Mia! has the worst choreography of any big-screen musical in history, though that would imply that what happens in the film is choreography. The dorky flippered snorkelers who high-step down a sunlit dock to ”Lay All Your Love on Me,” embarrassing as they are, can at least be accused of dancing. But most of the film’s numbers consist of Meryl Streep, her two fellow feisty broads (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters), and a handful of other actors who can sort of sing cavorting on beaches with happy amateur glee, as if it were the first day of rehearsal and the director, Phyllida Lloyd, had tried to tune everyone into the ecstasies of ABBA by declaring: Let yourself go! Create your own dance steps! Feel the music! The film’s lighting isn’t much better. The Greek island where Streep’s character runs a cozy-shabby hotel looks about as magical as Fort Lauderdale, and Streep has red-rimmed eyes even when she’s not weeping with joy. The flat, stark too-brightness exposes that what we’re watching is a piece of kitsch so syrupy it’s like a lethal overdose of baklava.
And yet…there are the songs. If Mamma Mia! didn’t have the delectableness of ABBA’s music — those percolating disco-pop arias of romance Bubble Wrapped in melancholy — we could toss it onto the trash heap of Hollywood musical follies, right up there with Xanadu and Paint Your Wagon. But Mamma Mia! offers a sublime song every five minutes or so (”Money, Money, Money,” ”Dancing Queen,” ”Super Trouper”), and it is also, to be fair, far from unaware of its tacky coyness. On stage, the story of a girl who invites her mom’s three ex-lovers from 20 years ago to her wedding — all to learn which one is her father — is vapid, but exuberantly vapid. It works as a delivery system for the joy of ABBA’s music. The film, with its bland travelogue visuals and big-name mugging actors (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård, as the daddy suitors, compete to see who can shed his dignity the fastest — Firth wins by a nose), is too realistic. Lloyd, who directed it on stage, hasn’t found an equivalent to the show’s stylized sincerity.
Amanda Seyfried is adequately sweet as Sophie, who craves — in addition to a father — a princess wedding. But as Donna, the free-spirited, second-wave-feminist mom who asks her two gal pals to the event, Streep is trying so hard to get off her pedestal, to play a woman past all glamour, that she declaims every line (even when she’s croak-singing), like a sailor on a bender. I never thought I’d see a film in which blowsy Christine Baranski is the most restrained person on screen. Yet let’s give Mamma Mia! credit: It’s bad in so many ways, yet you can’t say that these ladies lack spunk. Their what-the-hell moxie lights up the first girl-power musical to target girls over 50. (And just wait until Pierce Brosnan warbles ”S.O.S.” You’ll laugh. And then you’ll be charmed.) I won’t really defend Mamma Mia!, but I will recommend how to watch it: Just stop rolling your eyes and listen. C+