REVIEW: Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)

A sun-washed Greek hotel, where even those who aren't sexy or tan are in fact sexy and tan, plays backdrop to a mess of friends gathered for a wedding. The bride, Sophie (walking seizure Amanda Seyfried), invites three of her single mother's (Meryl Streep) ex-boyfriends (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) to the event, hoping to determine which is her father in the one remaining day before she ties the knot. Released as counter-programming to the illegitimate juggernaut The Dark Knight, this bright musical about the claiming (and reclaiming) of sexuality and based on the whimsical Broadway show comprised entirely of ABBA tunes aims to please.

If I can be sure of one thing concerning Mamma Mia, I can be sure it knows its audience. There's a reason people tell stories of seeing this in auditoriums full of people singing and dancing along. It's a colorful, intentionally goofy and occasionally exploitative ride that meets its demographic with confidence even if it's not a perfect bull's eye.

With euphoric classics such as Singin' in the Rain or Anchors Aweigh as glowing exceptions, most musicals have two hills to climb. The first is creating an environment in which expression through song - often as a group - is believable. The second is keeping that form of expression fresh. Too often do musicals become exhausting around the midsection, transforming their second halves into virtual gauntlets for the tired audience to withstand. Mamma Mia gets off to a rocky start when it comes to the first hill due to the vexatious, younger cast members, most of whom are mere expository tools. Eventually leaping the first few hurdles, the music does improve enough to keep the audience fueled with the title track, "Mamma Mia" and, of course, "Dancing Queen," the film's centerpiece. Surprisingly, the second hill doesn't become a significant issue. Yes, there are bits from the original show that could have been cut while retaining the film's feature-length status, but they're harmless, occasionally fun and over with quickly.

Not a friend to Mamma Mia's case is the number of shots lasting beyond three seconds. The ones I recall can be counted on one hand. If there were longer, more impressive takes of the action, however, the complaint here would be more geared toward the back-up dancers who act like rejects from a Britney Spears video. Additionally, Phyllida Lloyd's talents as a Broadway director don't translate well to film. There are a handful of memorable moments that compliment the impressive, high-spirited production design but for the most part the cinematography is claustrophobic and made worse by the schizophrenic editing.

So I managed my way past uneven pacing amidst MTV-era editing. I even accepted the bogus storyline that develops once Sophie's intentions are inevitably revealed. The film's key infraction, however, rests with its underdeveloped characters who are given little backstory aside from having been born and, in certain cases, having slept with Meryl Streep's character. This might look worse if the similar Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's 2007 musical based on Beatles tunes, hadn't more completely fouled up the same aspect a year prior. Where Mamma Mia at least has proper motivations for its characters that are weaved successfully (if sometimes all too literally) into the story, the aimlessly pseudo-psychedelic Across the Universe simply places characters around The Beatles' songs and hopes audiences don't notice that half of them are meaningless. That said, Mamma Mia is not forgiven, even if at times the characterization's back-burner treatment seems intentional. Thankfully the veteran actors' shame-free performances help things along.

I may only belong in Mamma Mia's target audience because I love ABBA but I can respect how hard the non-musical aspects nail the target demographic. Honestly, in spite of all the blemishes, it is a thriving, unabashedly boisterous celebration of ABBA's cheery combination of 60's folk and 70's disco. If you are going to love this film, you probably already know it. If you're not sure then, well, chances are slimmer. Either way, you'd better be a big ABBA fan or else you'll be missing the entire point.