In the next year or so, I would like to see Amanda Seyfried, who also plays one of Bill Paxton’s daughters on “Big Love,” have a nuclear family. In that role, she’s the normal child trying, best she can, to stand outside the dysfunction around her. Her character doesn’t connect with anyone else, and as an actress, neither does Seyfried. Here, she just dances through the movie, oblivious to the havoc she’s caused by inviting her three could-be fathers. It might help to have her actually engage her fellow actors, if only to see if there’s anything beyond her curly perkiness.
As for Meryl Streep, you sense that she’s thinking what you’re thinking: That she can’t actually be in this movie. She self-consciously gives it her all—sashaying through the cottages and across the stone porches, grabbing boobs, ass, and the front of her dress to shows us a little leg. She manages to get into all sides of the frame, running, climbing, rolling, shimmying, pratfalling—daring the camera to keep up. You get the sense that she keeps moving because if she stops, she might quit the film entirely.
The problem isn’t effort; it’s disposition. Streep doesn’t have the reckless abandonment that Donna needs—in other words, you can’t quite picture Streep as a former get-around girl. When she says, “I was a stupid, reckless little slut,” who really believes that? Has a Meryl Streep character ever calculated so little? One can see Miranda Priestly dismissing such an undisciplined girl from her secretary’s chair, but Streep herself, even as a teenager? It becomes obvious about halfway through that an over make up-ed Christine Baranski has the cougar-ness Donna requires. Why isn’t Jennifer Coolidge in this someplace?
Streep plays Donna as an embodiment of Catholic guilt. She gives Donna a self-loathing streak, as if she’s a nun rapping the knuckles of her younger self, which consumes her until the boys show up, she confesses her past, and becomes a Dancing Queen of self-forgiveness. She tries to turn this embrace of her past into a real emotional risk, which doesn’t quite fit the mood of Mamma Mia!—that exclamation point is there for a reason.
Even writer/director Phyllida Lloyd has something similar on her mind. When the boys talk about their hippie days, we think this is another one of those boomer angst stories. But, most boomer stories start with the premise that idealistic youth is your natural state, and your force yourself into middle class, middle brow-ism. Here, though, middle brow is your natural state, and you force yourself into youth. I mean, can you imagine Colin Firth as a Sex Pistols roadie? Pierce Brosnan in an acid-tinged sweat band? Skellan Skarsgaard not brutally killing people? The usually boomer film envisions the mini van and J-Crew polos as the outfit of suburban nightmares; Mamma Mia! sees hippie clothing as a trippy nonsensical dream. It makes more sense. In the end, free love wins out as a business matter, and it works as a tax write-off.
In fact, the film version of Mamma Mia! is out to prove that acting is more important than singing in a musical. A daring proposition, but has catching Brosnan’s drowning cat act, you have to admire Lloyd’s dedication. It’s like she cast Streep solely for the scene in which she and her daughter have the big talk at the end—the layers of sadness and guilt as they hold back tears. The fact that Brosnan can’t sing is kind of endearing—he’s awkward as a recently-divorced bachelor. In the end, though, the movie is simply too awkward—“cinematic” doesn’t mean simply filming something staged. The camera work is off, the tone is off, the singing is off. Lloyd takes a chance on film, which is admirable, but it doesn’t quite work.
1˝ The Producers (2005) + 1 Movin’ Out = 2˝ Mamma Mia!