Mamma Mia! | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mamma Mia!

The popular stage musical fueled by ABBA songs hits the big screen

I was literally in a fevered state when I saw this musical, and am now trying to sort out how much of the swirling, spangled delirium was inherent to the film and how much my overheated brain might have added. Really, I think the movie ran up right up the loopy-meter all on its own.

First off, the idea is crazy: Mamma Mia! is a wisp of a domestic comedy, in which its characters express their deepest desires only through the songs of 1970s mega-hit Swedish pop band ABBA. Mamma Mia! has been a wildly successful stage musical, and now Phyllida Lloyd hoists it up onto the big screen starring Meryl Streep. Well, if America's greatest actress can't breathe life into "Super Trooper," who can?

Streep plays Donna, a fortysomething free spirit who runs a ramshackle hotel on a remote Greek island. Her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, from HBO's Big Love), is getting married, and the party prep is in full swing. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie has also invited three of Donna's old paramours, any of which could be her dad.

So everybody turns up anxious to innocently revisit the past: Donna's two gal pals -- the Botoxed divorcee Tanya (Christine Baranski) and the frumpy Rosie (Julie Walters) -- arrive first, followed by the likely dads. There's the adventurer Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), the nebbishy accountant Harry (Colin Firth) and the suave architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan).

Oddly, given all the characters and the potential for misunderstanding, the story doesn't create much in the way of farce, choosing instead to buttress its flimsy who's-my-daddy story with lots of musical numbers. Exuberant musical numbers. Musical numbers that require lots of pantomime and whirling about on the beach and swirly, colorful skirts festooned with shiny things. (This may be the island that sequins come from.)

And these numbers are so literal! In "Dancing Queen," the three middle-aged women give themselves permission to be "young and free" and exhort each other: "you can dance, you can dance, having the time of your life." Really. Donna complains about making ends meet in "Money, Money, Money." Sophie and her beau beg each other, "Don't go changing your emotion, lay all your love on me." (Shockingly, despite the large cast of sun-burnished Mediterranean extras, nobody called "Fernando" turns up.)

The whole affair has the gang's-all-here giddiness of a last-night-at-band-camp revue tossed with any chick flick where the gals break out into a golden oldie while crooning into hairbrushes, plus a color-saturated tourist reel about summering in the Greek isles. Everybody is enthusiastic, if not wholly on their marks. As a crooner, Firth should keep his day job, and Streep, while mostly on point with these admittedly simple songs, has trouble selling her big last-reel show-stopper, "The Winner Takes It All." (Completely insipid lyrics like "the winner takes it all / the loser has to fall" don't help.) The performance that drew the biggest response -- in laughter -- from a preview audience was the otherwise charming Brosnan's bizarrely angry version of "SOS."

Mamma Mia! is ever-so-light-and-silly, and if you can stomach a couple dozen ABBA songs and entirely too much girly shrieking, this could be your fun summer movie. For me, it was just on the edge of tumbling into that pit of ill-conceived, A-list-studded musicals (a place, I should point out, I don't mind visiting now and then). Honestly, now that my vapors have cleared, I can see this being a huge, all-season hit with the sing-along crowd. I do, I do, I do, I do. Starts Fri., July 18.

Mamma Mia!
Dancing queens: Christine Baranksi, Meryl Streep and Julie Walters