"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Monday, September 1, 2008

Movie Review: Mamma Mia! Hard to Imagine a Better Party

If there were a family get-together with all the slick, recent Broadway-to-film productions, like Hairspray and Dreamgirls, Mamma Mia! would be the drunk older aunt whose clothing doesn't really match and who says all the wrong things but you love her and her kooky, off-kilter self anyway. The movie is, like that aunt, all over the place: Only a third of the cast can actually sing, the plot is thin, and the characters are — with the exception of a few moments — as one-dimensional as it gets. Oh, and there are hardly three minutes between one ABBA cover and the next.

In place of the large-scale choreographed dance productions of other musicals, Mamma Mia! chooses to go heavy on stuff like arms waving in the air, frolicking through streets, and bed bouncing. It has all the girlish exuberance of a slumber party, the sweaty debauchery of a bachelorette party, and the spectacle of a big fat Greek wedding. The movie — and all the actors in it — so unabashedly embrace a spirit of innocence and joy that it's hard to imagine a more perfect form of escapism.

Despite filming in a stunning sun-drenched location, the cast is the real reason this summer movie shimmers.

Mamma Mia! is a party from start to finish. It takes place within a short period of time on a small Greek island where 20-year-old Sophie (played by one of the cast members who can really sing, Amanda Seyfried) is about to get married, though her hippie mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), is concerned she might be too young. The only thing Sophie's missing to complete her perfect day is that she wants her father to give her away — but she's not sure who her father is.

After busting into Donna's diary, Sophie discovers that there are three men who could be her dad, and without telling anyone she invites all three to the wedding. And they all show up. . . for some reason. Meanwhile, Donna's randy old girlfriends have also descended onto the island for the wedding and are there by her side when the three men from her past suddenly appear.
Now, I understand that for some of you, this silly plot plus nonstop ABBA sounds about as fun as pouring gasoline in your eyes and if that's the case, this movie isn't for you. I don't think the filmmakers are trying to convert anyone here. No, this movie was made for the initiated. For those folks (like me) who wish real life were peppered with spontaneous bursts of song and dance, and whose idea of a good time might include getting sauced with Christine Baranski and Meryl Streep.

And basically that might be what's at the heart of this movie: wanting to hang out and have a goofy good time with these beloved actors. So when Collin Firth is suddenly in a ridiculous, gaudy outfit, singing a cheeseball ABBA song it made me buckle over in laughter, the same way it would if I saw my own dad or uncle doing it. They know it's kind of a joke, but they seem happy to be the punchline, and it's so endearing to see all these great performances come out of actors who have tossed out their vanity in the name of fun.

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