I was actually kind of looking forward to seeing the movie version of Mamma Mia!, mostly because of the film's terrific cast. I was a bit deflated when the reviews came out last Friday, but nonetheless resolved to see the movie over the weekend, lest the word-of-mouth sway me too far in either direction.
Well, let's just say that the reviews were overly kind, even the scathing ones. This atrocity sets movie musicals back twenty years. Yes, you'd need to go back to John Huston's bloated "Annie," Richard Attenborough's insipid "A Chorus Line," or Colin Higgins' flaccid "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" to find a movie musical this clumsy, charmless, and just plain painful to sit through.
The worst of the movie's crimes lies in wasting its wonderfully talented cast. Poor Meryl Streep is forced to mug, snort, writhe, and squeal her way through this discomfiting affair. The marvelous Christine Baranski comes off as an awkward mix of Mae West and Frank N. Furter from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." And the otherwise wonderful Julie Walters gives the most over-the-top and painfully frenetic performance in a movie chockablock with same.
The rest of the cast doesn't fare much better, although the young lovers Amanda Seyfreid and Dominic Cooper come off marginally less embarrassing than their more mature co-stars. To say that Pierce Brosnan can't sing would be an understatement. Not since Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face," or perhaps Vanessa Redgrave in "Camelot," have we heard warbling this forced and tuneless. Stellan Skarsgard somehow manages to maintain his dignity, despite the humiliating business Lloyd gives him in a misguided effort to add life to his songs. And the less said about the normally reliable Colin Firth the better.
How do you make this slate of pros look lame and amateurish? You hire an inexperienced director and a hack writer. Phyllida Lloyd should never be allowed to make another movie. Her enervating mix of hyper-reality and lame musical comedy drains what was an amusing trifle of a stage show of whatever charm to which it might once have laid claim. Her tyro director status makes itself readily apparent in myriad ways, including her use of hackneyed camera tricks. (Example: When the Meryl Streep character first sees her three former suitors, Lloyd has the camera zoom quickly in on each of the men's faces. What is this, "Looney Tunes"? I'm surprised she didn't ask the sound guy to throw a "SPROING!" effect into the soundtrack.)
Screenwriter Catherine Johnson also wrote the book for the stage version of Mamma Mia! To begin with, the plot is stolen from Alan Jay Lerner's little-known musical Carmelina. (Admittedly, Lerner himself stole the story from the movie "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell", although he denied it to his dying day.) But more important, there's no credible drama, no believable emotion, and no genuine wit to be had anywhere in the script. But somehow the show works, whereas the movie holds an unflattering light up to the holes in the plot, the dearth of humor, and the lack of character development. And Anthony van Laast's choreography, which on stage was passable, here looks like something out of a local PTA talent show.
Normally, I'll buy the DVD to pretty much any movie musical, if only to help prove that there's a market for this stuff. However, I would sooner endure a colonoscopy and a root canal simultaneously than suffer through the pain of Mamma Mia! ever again.