Mamma Mia! (2008)

2008 #81
Phyllida Lloyd | 104 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Mamma Mia!If you listen to the critics, no one liked Mamma Mia. If you listen to the public, everyone loved it. It’s the highest grossing British film of all time at the UK box office — at last count, just over £400,000 away from being the highest ever* — and was still playing on the big screen at hundreds of locations the weekend before its DVD release.

Mamma Mia! is the first feature from director Lloyd, who also directed the original stage production — and sometimes both facts show. She doesn’t always quite know what to do with the camera, the choreography is often aimed at a theoretical audience rather than the camera position (a pet peeve of mine), some shots are over-simplistic, others over-done, and there’s a bit of “point and shoot” too, missing opportunities that would be obvious to more experienced film directors. It’s never atrociously directed — at the very least, the scenery looks stunning, and is put to much good use — but it does the job and little more.

The songs themselves don’t need discussion (everyone knows what they think of Abba) but it’s worth mentioning how they’re choreographed and how they come about in story terms. Some have been brilliantly staged (Mamma Mia itself, but especially Does Your Mother Know), though others are flat and awkward (The Winner Takes It All doesn’t win anything as far as I’m concerned). Equally, some emerge naturally from the story (Chiquitita, Money Money Money), while others feel shoehorned in (again, The Winner Takes It All). For others still they seem to have just given up forcing them into the plot, leaving them to be performed by a musical act: Super Trouper, which at least is vaguely appropriate to the juncture it appears; and Waterloo, which is tacked on during the end credits, though at least is amusingly done.

The majority of the cast were clearly chosen for acting skills rather than singing ability, not that it’s done the film many favours. Pierce Brosnan was unfairly singled out by critics for poor vocals, but he’s no worse than several others. On the other hand, Julie Walters is as much of a riot as you’d expect, right from her first line, and earns the lion’s share of the laughs. For any bored male viewers, there’s always Amanda Seyfried, with her often bouncy pair of friends — played by newcomers Rachel McDowall and Ashley Lilley (why, what did you think I meant?) Every cast member is clearly having a ball, so much so that some forget to do more than read lines aloud; but it’s occasionally infectious, the frequency of infection being directly proportional to how susceptible the viewer is to this genre of music and this genre of film.

It may go without saying, but the more you like Abba the more you’ll like Mamma Mia. Conversely, the more you hate them the more you’ll hate it. (Extra stars can be added or subtracted at the end depending on which side of the fence you fall.) It’s therefore easy to see why audiences — especially British audiences — have lapped it up, while the critics have been fairly damning. On the other hand, the often clichéd first-draft-level script and occasionally ungainly first-readthrough-level performances don’t help things any. Luckily it very rarely takes itself too seriously, and consequently is often hilariously funny. Though it attempts both, it clearly works best when being a camp and cheesy comedy rather than a serious romance/family drama. One especially weak note, in my opinion, is the subplot awarded to Colin Firth’s character, who turns gay almost out of nowhere. It’s not a bad idea for a subplot, especially in a film based on Abba music (not that I’m applying any stereotypes here), but it’s poorly executed.

Mamma Mia! never aimed to please the critics, or even your regular movie-goer. Instead it sets its sights firmly on Women Of A Certain Age who can remember Abba from first time round, and students who perhaps listen to them in a more ironic way nowadays. In that sense, it’s clearly an unmitigated success. As camp as a row of tents, disliked by critics, loved by audiences: Mamma Mia! is everything you’d expect from Abba.

3 out of 5

* In the interests of fully-correct information, I feel I should point out that Mamma Mia! has now [December 28th, 2008] overtaken Titanic at the UK box office. (BBC News) ^

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