Have you been avoiding Mamma Mia like the plague? Well, don't. This riotous adaptation of the Broadway musical no one could have paid me enough to see is so visually experimental, you might have to blink twice to remember that the cast includes Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep and the film's budget is reported to be $66 million. (Of course a reported budget of $66 million is probably an actual budget of $40 million, but that's still a helluva lot bigger than, say, Zero Patience, John Greyson's totally irreverent AIDS musical from the early '90s, to which this film owes a great debt.
In fact, I'd say this ABBA musical shares more in common with Greyson's than it does with higher budget musical fare such as Evita and Chicago, both of which go out of their way to make absolutely certain that the meaning (even when it involves irony) of the musical's lyrics are crystal clear, with no room for ambiguity.
In the world created by director Phyllida Lloyd—who, if imdb is to be believed, appears to be making her feature film debut here—once the songs begin, all bets are off and reality flies out the window... in many cases right alongside Ms. Streep and any number of her co-stars.
What I found so refreshing about this is that the film makes no attempt to adhere to rules of logic regarding sequence of time and/or spatial relations during the songs. A Greek chorus pops up virtually everywhere, constantly meddling, commenting, in much the way a Greek chorus tends to do, only here, they appear in the guise of the hired help at Ms. Streep's character's B&B and the visual juxtaposition of those authentic Greek faces with the very modern and urbane subtexts is absolutely hilarious.
The style of filming songs reminded me of those quirky offbeat (and, sadly, not commercially successful) musicals of the last two decades of the 20th Century, such as Zero Patience, Franchesca Page and Can't Stop the Music, the story of the creation of the band The Village People as a movie musical set in Disco-era New York City. And, of course, Mamma Mia's visual style owes a great deal to Xanadu, which in a reversal of what we see here, has turned a lousy movie into a winning Broadway camp extravaganza.
Unfortunately, the parts of the film between the songs don't live up to their musical counterparts either in inventiveness or, more surprisingly, in convincing and believable performances. In fact, the first 10 minutes of the film play as though the cast had been whipped into a frenzy with the clichéd direction: "FASTER, LOUDER, FUNNIER!" The poor cast is so hyper that I started to feel sorry for them. But once the singing begins, the fun kicks in and the film saves itself.
One footnote: Can there be any doubt that Meryl Streep is simply the greatest living actor on the planet? For the most recent evidence of this, watch how she transforms the trifling song, Winner Takes All into a nuanced dramatic monologue. This could be used as a lesson for aspiring singer/actors. Her choices are so specific. Watching her sing the song, one completely forgets just how empty the material is—she does such a fine job of infusing it with meaning. As she has done countless times before.