Seeing middle-aged women frolicking mindlessly on screen might not seem like much of a feminist achievement, but I’m pleased to consider Mamma Mia! part of the improving landscape for older women in popular entertainments. If summer is traditionally when action films like Hancock and The Dark Knight and Iron Man open, trolling for dollars from the pockets of the young and the male, then Mamma MIa!breaks the mold in a refreshing and pleasurable way.
The film continues in the tradition of the stage play on which it’s based, a string of ABBA songs never meant for the theatre that are stuck along a plot no more than a millimeter thick. A young girl, Sophie, about to marry her young boyfriend, Sky, is desperate to meet the father she’s never known before she begins her adult life. Her mother, Donna, was a free-spirited American who stayed on an idyllic Greek island after a summer vacation, pregnant with a daughter who could belong to any one of three men. The determined Sophie somehow finds these now 20-years-older men, invites them back to the fantasy isle for her wedding, and lo and behold, unknown to her astonished mother, they come.
Plot contrivances make sure Sophie and the audience never find out for sure which man is the father, but the cast winds up dancing and we wind up toe-tapping in our seats if we’ve let ourselves enjoy the fanciful fun and silliness of the slight enterprise. The musical was never meant as high art, but as a campy romp that uses ABBA’s songs to explain the paper thin depths of character psychology and motivation across a story that strains credulity, and the film follows suit. As more than one critic has remarked, those ABBA songs really are difficult to resist. Even glancing at a print advertisement for the film can lodge one of the tunes in my head for hours (and who needs to hum “Dancing Queen” while trying to work?).
Part of the film’s fun comes from watching Meryl Streep sing (not too badly) and dance (terribly, although not much is required of her) and, as one critic described, mug her way through the throw-away role of the counter-cultural mother, Donna. With her blond hair long, scraggly, and wind-blown, Streep magnanimously gives in to the proceedings’ campiness. Donna’s once-upon-a-time suitors, all of whom remember her fondly enough to traipse halfway around the world to see her again, are played by unlikely men, all three clearly surprised to find themselves in a musical: Pierce Brosnan plays Sam, the most serious of her former lovers, who’s saddled with the plot’s biggest leap of faith as (spoiler alert) he actually proposes to Donna, after no contact for 20 years, at the film’s end. The poor actor can’t sing a note, but watching Brosnan, and Colin Firth as Harry and Stellan Skarsgard as Bill, Donna’s other long-ago mates, warble their way through a verse or two makes you feel kindly toward guys who would so gamely essay something at which they’re really not very good.
In fact, only Christine Baranski, as Tanya, one of Donna’s two old friends who come to the wedding, has any experience with Broadway musical theatre, which makes Mamma Mia! more like a sing-along than a full-out movie musical. None of the leads are expected to really be able to dance—what passes for choreography looks more like the moves set on high school students eager to do The Music Man with no song or dance training. All the gestures key literally to the lyrics, and overly obvious visual puns and jokes ensure that they’re fun to watch, if not artistically innovative.
As a result, the music seems to heighten the lives of the characters, but in a highly quotidian, rather accessible way. Supernumeraries who otherwise serve as cooks or bellmen or handymen at the small hotel that Donna runs, suddenly become (of course!) the Greek chorus when they hear the tinkling intro to the next ABBA tune, dropping their tasks to face the camera and rock out as Streep’s back-up singers. That they return to their jobs without a thought after they’ve held each song’s last note just seems a matter of fact in Mamma Mia!’s alternative universe.
In one of the movie’s best scenes, Streep becomes a pied piper, the head point on a phalanx of women of all ages who leave their work at the hotel and their laundry lines in town to join Donna in singing and marching purposefully nowhere to “Dancing Queen” (if I’m remembering correctly), which they transform into an anthem of self-assertion about collectively washing their men right out of their hair. The film’s joke is that no one is meant to take these shenanigans seriously, but only to enjoy them with a big dollop of great good fun.
Streep, Baranski, and Julie Waters, as Rosie, the third of the adult female trio, appear to have their own hugely pleasurable time camping it up together. They all play women in their mid-50s or so, with tenuous connections to conventionality. Baranski’s Tanya is a sardonic, much-married sophisticate who clearly enjoys her husbands’ money as much if not more than she’s pleased by their companionship, and luxuriates in her mutual seduction with one of the hotel’s barkeeps. Waters’ Rosie rejects the idea of settling down, happily chasing after Bill for some good clean dirty fun. Their spirit of anti-establishment female hell-raising becomes infectious. And though they act silly and campy, the film (helmed by Phyllida Lloyd, who directed the stage version), never makes fun of them. Instead, we’re encouraged to be entertained by the good time they seem to be having, which is a rather neat trick for a mass market summer film when middle-aged women are involved.
The only unfortunate plot choice is that the film sticks to the original musical’s ending, which (spoiler alert, again, if anyone would rather try to be surprised by the story) requires Sam to propose marriage to Donna at the 11th hour. Somehow, daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), whom Donna has tried to dissuade from her own wedding to the handsome but dunderheaded Sky, is finally convinced—at the altar no less–that she should travel the world instead of getting hitched. This is clearly a happy outcome for a girl so desperately young and obviously naive (signaled by how and what she sings and how shrilly she shrieks with her girlfriends, a trio not at all as compelling as Donna and her friends).
But god forbid a good wedding should go to waste. Sam comes to the rescue with his knees bent and his hat in his hand, asking Donna to forgive him for leaving her the first time and now, 20 years later, to give him another try and marry him while she’s at it. The rules of romance on film require her to accept, which Streep performs with watering eyes and tremulous lips in unnecessary close-ups, throwing over in a ludicrous moment Donna’s own adulthood of more sober, unconventional, interesting choices and perfectly competent hotel management. Apparently, Donna wasn’t even aware of the torch she’d been holding for Sam, and her eyes widen with surprise when it turns out to be burning her backside.
And so, of course, the priest is happy because he gets to say his vows, and the guests are happy, because they’ve schlepped up a very high and narrow, precariously winding mountainside stairway to get to the church for the ceremony. The movie’s setting, too, is a fairy tale—how could even a Greek island be that picturesque and dazzling, the hotel Donna runs so charmingly dissolute, and even the sailboat on which the three once-and-future suitors arrive together so vividly seaworthy? The whole enterprise resembles a karaoke performance of a Disney-like film: a lot of fun if you’ve drunk enough really sweet cocktails not to be bothered by performers who can’t sing and a lot of mass-manufactured by-the-numbers ideology about love.
But I was happy to watch those middle-age leading women throw their arms around each other and laugh, cavorting merrily, even if by the film’s end, I was so exhausted from all the forced gaiety and frivolity I needed a cocktail myself.
Dancing queens indeed,
The Feminist Spectator