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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sam, Bill or Harry? (Mamma Mia)

Mama sorts them out

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   For me, ABBA was never a guilty pleasure. It was usually a pleasure, period. Most of the group’s hits were great little soap operas sung in Berlitz lesson English to irresistible melodies with unassailable arrangements. It was pure pop for now people in the ’70s.

  ABBA was never as big in benighted America as elsewhere, but that began to change with the 1999 Broadway debut of one of the most lucrative musicals ever, Mamma Mia! The plot, loosely strung together through a sequence of ABBA songs, concerns a fatherless 20-year-old girl about to be married. Reading her mother’s diary, Sophie gathers that mom was never certain of who fathered her. There were three possibilities. Sophie decides to invite them all to the wedding, behind mom’s back. Which one will escort her down the aisle?

  Let’s not get too persnickety or unwilling to suspend disbelief. Classic operas have been built from thinner concepts, as have many beloved musicals from Hollywood’s golden age. The extraordinary box office enjoyed by Mamma Mia! practically insured its transformation into a movie musical, especially at a time when the once dormant genre has made a cautious comeback with The Producers and Hairspray.

  Mamma Mia! is as enjoyable as any recent contender and like any good song and dance picture from the 1940s and ’50s, is soaked in bright color and brighter melodies. It boasts an enviable cast. Starring as Donna, Sophie’s mom with a wild past, Meryl Streep proves game at motherhood and business. Streep is slumming but having a good time. Donna owns a charmingly rundown villa-resort on a remote Greek island, set like a sun-dazzled diamond on the wine dark sea. The scenery is almost worth the ticket price. OK, the rental once it’s released on DVD.

  Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth play the trio of long-ago boyfriends and presumptive fathers, Sam, Bill and Harry. The personality chasms separating these three men are wide enough to be funny (though the script doesn’t exploit this as well as it could) and makes one wonder about the catholicity of mom’s tastes. Brosnan, Skarsgard and Firth appear as comfortable in their light roles and just as willing as Streep to burst into ABBA songs. It must be said that the original recordings were better. Those chilly Nordic harmonies captured the vibe with greater aptitude than the uncertain voices of the cast.

The screenplay includes anachronistic allusions to “flower power” and Sid Vicious, as if Donovan and the Sex Pistols shared the same cultural moment; photos of the three boyfriends from 20 years earlier make them look for no good reason like a Spinal Tap tribute band. Mamma Mia! is helmed by its stage director, Phyllida Lloyd, who nails the silly theatrical exuberance without a thought of cinematic grandeur. Mamma Mia! probably won’t be cited alongside Singing in the Rain or Moulin Rouge. It’s not epochal but merely a bubbly two-hour summer vacation to a comical, nostalgic world beyond the reach of high gas prices, credit card debt, failed mortgages and the uncertain future of the world. Maybe that’s as good as it gets in the summer of 2008.