I'm old enough to remember the curious buzz that greeted the announcement back in the early '80s that Meryl Streep was going to star in a film version of 'Evita.' Meryl Streep? Certainly she could act, but would she be able to handle the vocal gymnastics the musical's songs required? That question was never answered as the film never materialized. ( It was finally made in 1996 with Madonna in the role—a mixed blessing, at best. ) So, though Streep did sing famously at the end of 1990's Postcards from the Edge she's only now belatedly appearing in her first screen musical, Mamma Mia! Instead of Webber and Rice at their musical height, however, she gets the songs of ABBA. But they are songs much friendlier to her untrained, reedy voice, and are more likely to be welcomed by movie audiences at large.
Singing or not, Mamma Mia!—an adaptation of the unlikely Broadway hit—is lucky to have Streep in the title role and the rest of its amiable, what-the-hell cast as well, for its extremely thin conceit is only saved by these expert, willing performers; the residual goodwill still left in a few of the overly familiar ABBA songs; the movie's sensual Greek isle setting; and a hot piece of male eye candy with spectacular abs named Dominic Cooper ( the heartthrob from The History Boys ) . Mostly, Mamma Mia! the movie gets by on sheer exuberance—a barrage of gusto that throws itself on the goodwill of the audience and rushes on before naysayers can kick any sand in its face. Your appreciation of it, I suspect, will strongly depend on your mood and the enthusiasm of the audience members around you. Mine ebbed and flowed, along with the waves crashing upon the shores of the sunny locale.
The wafer-thin story concerns the impending nuptials of perky Sophie ( Amanda Seyfried ) to Sky ( the aforementioned Cooper ) . But there's a fly in the suntan lotion: Sophie wants her dad to walk her down the aisle, though her free-spirit mom, Donna ( Streep ) , has never identified who the lucky gent is. Nevertheless, Sophie has discovered that it's either Sam ( Pierce Brosnan ) , Bill ( Stellan Skarsgård ) or Harry ( Colin Firth ) , and she's secretly invited all three to the island for the wedding. They arrive just after her mother's two oldest friends, Rosie ( Julie Walters ) and Tanya ( Christine Baranski ) . They're funny and bawdy, quickly loosening up Donna, who has become a tad uptight in her upper middle age. ( Apparently, Donna and her girlfriends used to be a trio version of the Banger Sisters. )
Soon everyone is singing and dancing the familiar ABBA tunes all over the island—on the beach, in the water, on the roof of the hotel, up and down the tiny streets of the village, etc.—and welding them onto the plot: Which dad will walk Sophie down the aisle? Which dad will once again win Donna's heart? Which dad will get the leftover? Which bartender will catch the eye of the older but still sexy Tanya? How many shades of blue will the art director be able to come up with? And in how many scenes will we get to savor Sky's shirtless torso?
Lesbian director Phyllidia Lloyd makes her film debut, shepherding her baby from stage to screen ( along with her two other female co-creators ) . Not having seen the show on the stage, I can't say how well it worked there but the screen version is dreadfully shot and haphazardly staged at best ( though the stunning Greek isle location helps tremendously ) . Lloyd does manage to get an infectious rhythm going in some of the songs, especially the chorus numbers. Streep looks fantastic with her blonde highlights and tan, as do the rest of the cast; though she seems strapped in by the silly material, she gets laughs here and there as well as real feeling into the ballad she sings to the daughter. ( The endless 11 o'clock number, 'The Winner Takes It All,' is another story. ) Firth is droll and funny ,and has the best voice of the elders in the cast ( the others just squeak by ) ; Walters delivers an energetic 'Take a Chance on Me;' and the movie even delivers a nice gay twist at the end.
Even with the gay twist and the free-love stuff, however, Mamma Mia! is old-fashioned fluff, and most closely resembles the old Annette-and-Frankie beach-party movies ( and has the same thrown-together look and feel ) . Those movies also got by on their sheer energy and goodwill and, like them, Mamma Mia! is best seen once and then put into the mental beach bag for storage until summer returns.
—The Dark Knight, this summer's most highly anticipated blockbuster, opens this Friday and, though the Internet is already ablaze with early reviews, publicists for Warner Bros. have asked Chicago critics to hold their reviews until the film opens here Thursday night. Therefore, check the Windy City Times Web site Friday for my review of the film. I will tell you this much: If you want to experience the movie in all its explosive glory, get thee to an IMAX and pronto.
—Last week, the Gene Siskel Film Center kicked off a series devoted to the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The classic teaming of Astaire, film's embodiment of a Cole Porter sophisticate and Rogers, the lacquered blonde with the stinging wit, is still enthralling to watch over 70 years after they first stepped out onto the dance floor. Perhaps their most graceful teaming came with 1936's Swing Time, which screens Fri., July 18, at 6 p.m. ( and again Wed., July 23, at 8:30 p.m. ) . Other remaining delights in the series include Roberta, Follow the Fleet and Carefree. Screening dates, times and ticket info are at www.siskelfilmcenter.com
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also ordering information on my book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.