Post largely rewritten after seeing it again 8/9.
Friend: You’re going to see Mamma Mia? My mother loves Mamma Mia!
Me: No, MY mother loves Mamma Mia…
You’d never know it by looking at her, of course, but she has seen the play in nearly every jurisdiction where it’s been performed (e.g., London, New York, California, Hamburg…). I myself have seen it in each of the first three locations at least once. Unless you absolutely hate ABBA, it’s always good for a toe-tapping good time. The play cleverly weaves together many of the most famous ABBA songs along with plenty of humor and female-empowering themes.
So we decided to go catch a matinee of the movie on its opening day. I felt some trepidation going into it: a movie is a very different dramatic medium than a play. Would it still work? Or were its enjoyable qualities dependent on it being a piece of live theater?
On retrospect I think this anxiety clouded my initial take on the movie. It definitely seemed different, and I equated those differences with deficiencies. But seeing it the second time, with a better idea what to expect, allowed me to better appreciate it.
True, even on second viewing I still had some issues. Not that the original play was some Shakespearean drama, but I’d always felt it had its own self-contained balance. Although it may just be that I’m not remembering the play quite right, the movie struck me as being significantly edited-down from how I remembered the musical. The story involves three older male characters and three older female characters, and I remember the stage production exploring each one reasonably equally. But in the movie only one of the men and one of the women ever were significantly developed. The others were almost treated as afterthoughts, which I thought was too bad, not just because they were interesting characters played by capable performers, but also because the abbreviation rendered their performances uneven. I thought, for instance, after the first viewing that Colin Firth came off as too buffoonish. On second viewing I could better see the internal logic to his character, but it was still fainter than I think it should have been. Of course, maybe I’m just annoyed that Firth didn’t get more screen time… He’s a fine actor, and I’m sure he could have done something substantial with it.
One of my other significant concerns with the cinematic adaptation came at the end. Like in the play, the main leads appear in full 1970’s sequined regalia for a performance of “Waterloo,” a seminal ABBA rocker that otherwise had no place in the rest of the story. It makes for a good climactic encore in the stage performance, but in the movie the cinematic choice of shooting it in an empty and echoing set, breaking the fourth wall to attempt to include the audience in its little joke, was a huge sour note. It would have been vastly more appropriate to instead have reveled in its energy and excess, and left the audience on the same musical high that the stage companies do.
But on second viewing it didn’t bother me as much, and I found myself better able to forgive the movie’s various other instances of unevenness. At the same time, however, even on the first viewing I recognized there were certain scenes that worked really well, like the “Dancing Queen” number, which was well-shot, well-mixed, and creatively envisioned. The movie converted the song from being a disco ode to a teenage clubber to an anthem of female empowerment, and the result was very entertaining and uplifting.
Actually, by and large I’ve always been impressed by the music in the movie. It was the area in which failure was most greatly tempted, but I cannot, and could not even after the first viewing, condemn any of the singing performances. Most reviews I’ve seen are united in their praise for Amanda Seyfried’s performance, which I agree with too. But anyone who doesn’t also think the movie contained a fine performance by Meryl Streep both comedically and musically is just wrong…
I also disagree with the criticisms directed toward any of the older men. To be sure, Firth probably had the best voice of the three and it was unfortunately under-exploited. Still, I give them all props for even attempting what could so easily have been a career-limiting move, yet my admiration is not predicated on them merely having managed to avoid disaster. Despite what some have said, Pierce Brosnan actually can sing. True, the range within which he can truly belt a note is relatively small, but he can certainly carry a tune and even emote through his singing, which many even more musical than he can’t do. I particularly enjoyed his “SOS,” which he carried off with the same gravitas as if he were negotiating for hostages. Which perhaps was a little more than the occasion called for — it is, of course, still a musical of strung-together ABBA songs and therefore inherently cartoonish to some degree — but except for the finale during the credits it was still good to see the characters take themselves seriously within this particular little universe.
So ultimately my overall opinion of the movie may remain what it was after the first viewing, that it’s a good movie that seems like it could have been better. But, like the original play, it’s still definitely good for a toe-tapping good time.
(PS: Randy Barnett at the Volokh Conspiracy liked it too.)