(director: Phyllida Lloyd; screenwriters: Catherine Johnson/based on the original musical book by Ms. Johnson/originally conceived by Judy Craymer based on the songs of Abba; cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos; editor: Lesley Walker; music: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus/some songs with Stig Anderson; cast: Meryl Streep (Donna), Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Colin Firth (Harry), Stellan Skarsgard (Bill), Julie Walters (Rosie), Dominic Cooper (Sky), Amanda Seyfried (Sophie), Christine Baranski (Tanya), Ashley Lilley (Ali), Rachel McDowall (Lisa), Philip Michael (Pepper); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Judy Craymer/Gary Goetzman; Universal Pictures; 2008)
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A silly lightweight musical-comedy taken from a Broadway show that is goofy fun despite all its lapses and plays out as a My Big Fat Greek Wedding sitcom only with a more talented cast and the popular Swedish band ABBA’s pop music played throughout. Phyllida Lloyd makes her feature film directorial debut an uneven one; she’s a leading British theatre director who is noted for her work in opera and directed the original stage production. It’s based on the original musical book by Catherine Johnson. The film veers from being peppy to long dull spots, which show up Ms. Lloyd’s lack of filmmaking experience.
The feisty 20-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has been brought up on the idyllic small Greek island of Kalokairi by her hardworking single American mom, Donna (Meryl Streep), who operates for the last 15 years a charming but crumbling modest hotel, the Villa Donna. Before her upcoming wedding to nice guy local Sky (Dominic Cooper), Sophie discovers her mom’s diary from 20 years ago and it tells of three affairs she had that summer when she became pregnant and it becomes evident that one of them is the father she never knew. Without mom’s knowledge Sophie writes to all three and invites them to the wedding, and makes them think Donna is sending the invite. Sophie thinks she will recognize her real dad when she sees him. The guests start arriving, as Sophie’s bubbly friends (Ashley Lilley & Rachel McDowall) arrive first and after she swears them to secrecy, she tells them her devious plan; soon afterwards Donna’s long-time friends when she was a hedonist arrive: Tanya (Christine Baranski), a much divorced lady who takes pleasure flirting with young men, and the game Rosie (Julie Walters), the best-selling author of a cookbook. This is followed by the three potential fathers arrival on the day before the wedding, who meet en route and travel together by boat. Harry (Colin Firth) is a wealthy conservative British banker; Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), a travel writer, boat owner and free-spirited world traveler; and Sam (Pierce Brosnan), her true love architect boyfriend who designed the Villa Donna but broke her heart by marrying another. They are all great, handsome and accomplished guys, which takes away any concerns of Sophie’s unknown dad being unsuitable. The genial men bond, and when they find out the reason for the invite are not upset but each welcomes the chance to march down the aisle to give away Sophie. At first Donna doesn’t know how to take their presence and all the comedy is derived from a series of misunderstandings, but as expected things work out because everyone is so sophisticated and amenable and allow the fairytale story to end happily. When the action pauses you can count on anyone in the film bursting into an ABBA song. There were 22 such ABBA songs, which are all grounded in the 1970s while the film is grounded in the present.
It’s all so sweet and lite that it bounces off you like a cool breeze from the Aegean, and even though the stars are not known as singers at least they are appealing, try hard to make it work and their warbling doesn’t ruin any of the ABBA material; and, furthermore, Streep is around to make herself so lovably vulnerable and sings the title song “Mamma Mia!” with such gusto that you forget she’s not a professional singer but one of our better actresses. There were enough enjoyable moments for me to like it despite not being an ABBA fan and not being particularly taken with the cutesy story.
REVIEWED ON 7/20/2008 GRADE: B-