The must-attend events of day 2 of Outfest 2008 were the back-to-back screenings Thursday night of the film version of Mamma Mia! (opening in theaters July 18). Both screenings packed the Directors Guild theater, and I was there to testify that there's nothing quite like watching an ABBA-inspired musical with 500+ gay boys. The temptation to turn the screening into a sing-along was high but most restrained themselves until the final credits, when Meryl Streep actually encourages the audience to join her, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters in singing "Dancing Queen."
I should confess that I'm no fan of the stage version of Mamma Mia! I saw the original Broadway production and felt ripped off by the jukebox musical's strained, flimsy plot ... and I hadn't even paid for the $100 tickets! However, the movie's cast, trailer and more affordable ticket prices had me looking forward to it.
In a couple of ways, the film is an improvement over the stage version. The plot, centering on a young woman's plan to identify her unknown father out of three candidates she has invited to her wedding on a Greek island, is still strained and flimsy but the screenplay (adapted by Catherine Johnson, who wrote the theatrical book) wisely pares it down to the barest of essentials. The movie's lean, 108-minute running time is definitely preferable to the stage version's 2½ hours. Additionally, the actual Greek locations in the film are breathtaking.
The film's big-name cast is a mixed bag. La Meryl is, as always, fabulous as Donna. She looks great, sings and dances very well, and obviously had a lot of fun. While the story's serious moments are few and far between, Streep invests them with her trademark emotional authenticity. The lovely Amanda Seyfried, who plays Donna's "bastard" daughter Sophie, gives a breakthrough performance. Their wedding-day duet, "Slipping Through My Fingers", is the movie's highlight.
As Donna's former band mates, Baranski is wonderful (especially singing "Does Your Mother Know" to a beach full of hot, shirtless young men) but Walters mugs shamelessly and can't really sing or dance. Her rendition of "Take a Chance on Me" stops the show all right, but not in a good way.
The men -- Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth and Dominic Cooper -- fare a little better, both in terms of their performances and their singing. Firth, in particular, reveals a lovely singing voice. Brosnan's singing voice is odd, often sounding like he is in pain and threatening to become more of a bellow, but he can't be faulted for the earnestness he brings to his songs.
Mamma Mia!, the movie, is weakest in the technical department. The stage version's original director, Phyllida Lloyd, was employed to direct the film and she does so with a relentlessly heavy hand. She either encouraged or allowed nearly every line of every song to be illustrated as graphically as possible with gestures and facial expressions. The cinematography and editing, especially of the dance numbers, are downright awful (with the exception of "Voulez -Vous"), most likely due to Lloyd's apparent inexperience.
While most in attendance clearly enjoyed the screening and applauded vigorously at the end, I didn't share their enthusiasm. It wasn't painful to sit through (although my partner, an ABBA devotee, strongly disagrees) but ends up being a merely OK entry in the growing number of modern movie musicals.
UPDATE: Mamma Mia! is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.