MOVIE REVIEW ★★ 1/2 Bring on the Guilty Pleasure

Serious Actors Show How to Have Fun in ‘Mamma Mia!’

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Best friends Ali, Sophie, and Lisa (left to right: Ashley Lilley, Amanda Seyfried, and Rachel McDowall) discuss Sophie’s upcoming wedding in Mamma Mia!
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Mamma Mia!

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Written by Catherine Johnson

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard

Rated PG-13

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In the last few years, musicals have been created by compiling multiple songs from popular artists to tell a story. One of the first, and most successful, of these musicals is Mamma Mia! which uses songs from the palindromic Swedish pop group ABBA. It comes as no surprise that Hollywood has decided to make a movie of this long-running musical.

Now, in the interest of total disclosure, I feel I should tell you that I have not seen the live musical version of Mamma Mia! How similar or dissimilar the film is to the musical, I cannot say, and this review is based on the film alone.

The plot of Mamma Mia! is a simple one. Sophie (played by Amanda Seyfried), who was raised by her single mother Donna (Meryl Streep) on a small Greek Isle, is about to get married to Sky (Dominic Cooper), and she wants to know who her father is so that he can give her away at the wedding. But after reading her mother’s diary, Sophie realizes she has three possible dads: Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), an American architect; Harry Bright (Colin Firth), a British banker; and Bill Austin (Stellan Skarsgard), an Australian writer. To determine which man is her father, Sophie invites them all to her wedding, without telling her mother, and when they arrive, you can imagine all the fun that ensues.

Oh, and all of this is told with the help of those catchy ABBA songs.

The first thing that struck me about this film was the absurdity of the casting, and I mean that in the best way possible. Streep, Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgard, along with Julie Walters and Christine Baranski in supporting roles, is perhaps the most unlikely group to act and sing in a feel good musical set to a ’70s pop soundtrack. (I admit it, I never thought I’d see Colin Firth singing “Dancing Queen.”) However, it is this unexpectedness that makes the film work. Each of these actors has enough serious talent to make even the worst movie watchable, but given a fun story with some catchy tunes, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Luckily, none of them took him/herself too seriously, and the movie turned out to be pretty entertaining.

Obviously, the biggest star in the movie is Meryl Streep playing the aging hippie mother who isn’t sure she wants to let go of her daughter just yet. What impressed me most about her performance was how unglamorous it was; in most scenes, her long blond hair was messily arranged, falling into her makeup free (or nearly free) face, as she moved around in overalls. You can see how old she really is, but she’s OK with that. Actually, most of the older stars were a little rough around the edges (at least by Hollywood standards), and it was refreshing to see actors look their ages with grace and dignity.

While most of the story centers on Donna and her past suitors, Sophie is still an integral part of the movie, and she’s played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried (who really looks like she could be Meryl Streep’s daughter). The entire time I was watching the film, I kept wondering where I had seen this actress before, and only after I got home and checked IMDB did I realize she had played Karen Smith (the dumb one) in Mean Girls. I was shocked that the girl with the vacant stare could be the same one playing the expressive Sophie. Seyfried certainly makes the most of her role, even if she is often overshadowed by the more senior cast members.

My only really major problem with the film was the pacing. At times the story seemed to move so slowly; I wanted to scream, “We get it, they all loved Donna, now who is the dad?” This problem was exacerbated by the fact that I really disliked the character of Sky played by Dominic Cooper. There was no chemistry between Seyfried and Cooper, so any scene with him seemed to drag on for me.

For all of these flaws, there were some truly wonderful scenes in the film. My favorite had to be “Dancing Queen” as all of the village women danced their way through this beautiful Greek Isle. I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face as I tapped my foot along to the beat, and people in the theater even clapped when the song ended. In addition, there was a bonus scene during the credits with all of the actors in ’70s-style sequined jump suits (including the men — yes, even Mr. Darcy and James Bond) singing “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen” that left me laughing until it hurt. Mamma Mia! would certainly qualify as a guilty pleasure, but I’d recommend saving the $10 and renting the DVD when it comes out.