Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: 25 Reasons to Give Mamma Mia! a Second Look (Or First Look, If You Have Never Seen It Before, or Third Look If You’re Still Not Convinced.)

This week, I send letters to the three men who “dot-dot-dotted” with my mother that crazy summer fifty-two years ago in an attempt to find my real father. And I dance with scuba flippers on!

I well remember seeing Mamma Mia! for the first time with Patrick, Erika and my lovely wife. I was the only one who liked it, I was the only one who had fun that afternoon, and I was the only one who got my money's worth. So I won.

The critical drubbing this innocent little trifle received upon its original release surprised me. Here is a random sampling of the vitriol:

"The legal definition of torture has been much aired in recent years, and I take Mamma Mia! to be a useful contribution to that debate."
--Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

"A sage once advised being wary of movies in which the people on screen are having more fun than the people in the audience. Mamma Mia!, was that good advice."
--Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

"A mostly ghastly spectacle."
--Fernando F. Croce, CinePassion

" I believe that genealogy would prove ‘director’ Phyllida Lloyd a descendant of Ed Wood himself."
--Nathanial Rogers, Film Experience

"No film has ever had a more irrelevant story."
--Peter Bradshaw, Guardian UK

“[Mamma Mia! is] a chintzy valentine to the [. . .] ebullience of one's own flimsily ’empowered’ friendships and one's most offhanded and tarted-up whims.”
--Nick Davis, Nick's Flick Picks

“Unfortunately, Streep and her ancient co-stars create pure torture whenever on screen together. [...] The Catwoman of movie musicals.”
--Mike Sage, Peterborough This Week

Why all the hate, critics? One would think that Mamma Mia! caused the 2008 banking crisis. As an antidote to all this bad juju, I offer the following 25 reasons that Mamma Mia!, on the right evening, when you are in the right mood, and with the right people, MAYBE is… not so bad. In fact, it actually may be (dare I say it?) kind of fun.

25 Reasons to Give Mamma Mia! a Second Look

1. Tom Hanks' Play-tone Studios produced Mamma Mia! Scooter-gang member Larry Crowne notwithstanding, Tom Hanks deals in high-quality merchandise.

2. Mamma Mia! is beautiful to look at — between the authentic Greek locations and the cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos, this film is easy on the eyes.
3. Mamma Mia! is better than Transformers (in spite of having fewer robots.)

4. The songs in Mamma Mia! are insanely catchy — just ask any one of the 380 million people who have ever bought an ABBA record.

5. Meryl Streep can really sing. Why has she not been allowed to do more of this in the past? Even critics who hated the film admitted that her terrific rendition of "The Winner Takes It All" was a highlight of the film.
6. The "Voulez-Vous" number is performed like the masked ball sequence in Franco Zefferrelli's Romeo and Juliet. This dance takes place at Amanda Seyfried's bachelorette party. It is pretty cool; it is the one dance sequence in the film I wish were longer.

7. Stellan Skargaard, Colin Firth, and Pierce Brosnan all go full-in on this movie. They’re not only game for anything, they elevate the quality of all their scenes through sheer presence and force of will.

8. A grouch might argue that there are too many musical numbers, but that’s crazy talk because a) there is no such thing and b) like most "songbook" musicals, the filmmakers are attempting to shoehorn as many ABBA hits into 108 minutes as possible because THAT’S THE POINT. I actually think it is merely a case of two many "similar" musical numbers in a row; I would re-order them — because I know everything.

9. Amanda Seyfried is cuter than a button.
10. Mamma Mia! is better than Passion of the Christ (and has better songs.)

11. Many critics attacked the featherweight, insubstantial plot. First, when have we ever given a damn about the plot of a musical? Plus, I disagree. On the eve of a young woman’s surrender to marriage, three strangers from her mother's past convene on a remote island to lay claim to the girl’s paternity. Sounds like early Ingmar Bergman to me.

12. While Mamma Mia! is full of big musical numbers, it is actually the pair of smaller, quieter numbers that shine. "Our Last Summer," performed acoustically and featuring our trio of gentlemen wistfully reminiscing on a boat, and "Slipping Through My Fingers," in which Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried wax nostalgic about their shared past. Both numbers are heartwarming, featuring excellent performances from actors who have real chemistry with each other. How could anyone with a heart call that a "ghastly spectacle"?
13. Viewing Mamma Mia! is like taking a trip to Greece — a fabulous vacation that most people can’t afford, all for the price of a movie ticket.

14. People that like musicals need to go see musicals (same with Westerns). Do not bemoan the lack of musicals, and then when one is released (once in a blue moon) stay home. By seeing Mamma Mia!, you help ensure that more musicals may be released in the future.

15. Pierce Brosnan can sing. You may not like his voice — it reminds me of English folksinger Roger Whittaker — but he can sing.

16. Sometimes in class I think my students’ antipathy towards musicals is based on the fact that they have never seen a truly BAD musical, so they have nothing with which to compare sublime films like Singing In The Rain and A Hard Day's Night. You think Mamma Mia! is bad? Then you have never seen the films Song of Norway, A Chorus Line, or The Terror of Tiny Town.

17. Am I comparing Mamma Mia! to Singing in the Rain and A Hard Day's Night? Heavens, NO.  Am I saying that it is fun on its own merits? YES.

18. Mamma Mia! is better than any of the Twilight movies (in spite of having fewer vampire babies.)

19. Like all good musicals, Mamma Mia! suggests that life can — should! — be an adventure and that romantic love is possible. In these dark and troubled times, this facet of the film alone makes it worth recommending.
20. One of the characters discovers in the course of the movie that he is gay. I think that discovery should happen in every musical ever made.

21. In previous columns, I call both Singing in the Rain and The Blues Brothers “musicals for people who hate musicals.” Mamma Mia! might possibly be a "musical for people who love musicals." If you’re not sure which you are, this movie may serve as a litmus test.

22. This one is complicated. Because our readers here at F This Movie! are pretty movie savvy, the film can spark an interesting discussion of the role of the director in any production. I’ll be the first to say it: Mamma Mia! is poorly directed. At every turn, the songs, the performances, the choreography and the cinematography are undercut by Phyllida Lloyd's amateurish direction. This was both her first theatrical feature and first musical. Perhaps our Phyllida (that's fun to say) bit off more than she could chew; I do not think it sinks the film. Discuss.

23. Did I mention that Amanda Seyfried is as cute as a button? Oh, I did?

24. The end credits sequence where Streep, Baranski, and Walters appear in ABBA-inspired glam-rock getups to sing "Dancing Queen" is a hoot. In the "encore" they are joined by Skaarsgard, Firth, Brosnan, Seyfried and Dominic Cooper in similar dress and again, everyone absolutely commits to the goofiness.
25. Many critics objected to the insubstantial nature of the enterprise; they argued that the film was but a trifle. So? As far as sweet and empty experiences go, Mamma Mia! is tied with a large Dairy Queen Blizzard for being one of the best.

F-Heads, I was going to suggest you “take a ch-chance” on Mamma Mia!, but I’m better than that. Still, you totally should. In the meantime, if you have any recommendations for musicals that you feel deserve a little more love, let us know in the comments below, Fernando!


  1. I've never watched Mamma Mia all the way through, mostly because the bits and pieces I caught didn't wow me. Though Pierce Brosnan's rendition of SOS is a regular staple of mockery between my brother and I. Now I suppose I'll have to give the whole thing a legitimate shot. The Bergman comment won me over.

    As for musicals that need a little more love, I've never heard anybody say they outright don't like it, but I love Moulin Rouge! I love the energy, the simplicity, the emotion, and all those awesome covers. I can usually get people who hate musicals to give it a try with pretty positive results. I also love Woodstock, although that's more a concert movie than a musical. But it's the best concert movie, so that's got to count for something.

  2. Great.. now I am imagining a musical version of Passion of the Christ and how awesome that would be. Passion of the Christ: with music based on Led Zeppelin.

    1. Kashmir Krucifixion got me through some hard times in high school.

    2. I too thought of Kashmir for that interminable flogging scene!

  3. Aren't we dancing around the essential problem of the movie? It has ABBA songs in it. At least in Muriel's Wedding, the songs weren't the focus of the movie and you could just kind of ignore them a bit. Here, if you're not an ABBA fan (and the musical Chess aside, I am absolutely not) you can;t get away from what my brain insists are abysmal songs.

    I also totally disagree with #21. I love, love LOVE musicals and I can't stand Mamma Mia, and I love Blues Brothers.

    Also, Pierce Brosnan can sing, but only if we're grading on a Edward Norton in Everyone Say I Love You curve.

    A Curmudgeon Going Back To His Cole Porter Cave

  4. I really do like this movie. Yes, it has a somewhat sloppy, ramshackle quality to it, but to me that's part of its charm. Listen to the lyrics of The Winner Takes It All or Slipping Through My Fingers, and you'll see that ABBA didn't write "bubblegum music" at all.

    Someone who loves both ABBA and Sondheim

  5. When I first saw the trailer, I thought it was going to be the worst film ever. The movie that would kill the modern wave of musicals.
    However, after watching Mark Kermode's review, I dragged my wife (fiancé at the time) to go see it. We got stuck in the second row and left during the "Honey Honey" musical number so that we could find another screen that we could sit properly at.

    The movie is a mess, but it's a lot of fun. I now own it on blu ray.

    Mark Kermode's review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61UolzFTVPI

    1. Kern ode' stake on the film is one of the best movie reviews I've ever heard.

  6. I tried watching MAMMA MIA a while back, but I just couldn't get through it. I turned it off after about an hour (or less) into it, in a fit of manly rage. Maybe I should revisit it, maybe not.

    I just saw SINGING IN THE RAIN for the first time a year or so back. (The movie, that is. I saw the live show about, God, 20 years ago.) It's is a blast, and I'd argue that it still holds up in these modern, jaded times. Part of the joke of the movie is pointing out the phoniness of Hollywood, which never gets old.

    My top three underrated musicals:
    1) LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986). This was a big blockbuster at the time, but nobody talks about it anymore. The music is killer, the characters are charming and likable, and the Frank Oz puppetry will take your breath away. It's not just one of my favorite musicals, it's one of my favorite movies, period.
    2) REPO THE GENETIC OPERA (2008). Off-the-charts nonsensical weirdballs, but in a good way. For the last few years, this has been my annual "put it on in the background while I do my taxes" movie.
    3) SHOCK TREATMENT (1981). Yes, it's flawed and there's no way it can live up to RHPS's reputation, but it's also really interesting and has some fun Richard O'Brien songs. Plus, it predicted the whole reality TV/cult of celebrity thing with remarkable accuracy. Every time Miley Cyrus embarrasses herself in public, that's just Janet singing "Me of Me."

    1. Totally agree on Shock Treatment and Little shop (especially with the original ending!)

    2. I actually love both endings of Little Shop.

      Shock Treatment's songs are amazing.

      And Repo… well, it is the Rocky Horror of this generation. Maybe one day we'll get the 2 hr 40 minute version on blu ray too.

  7. JB - My dad likes Mama Mia. You are in good company. My mom makes fun of my dad for liking Mama Mia. I don't know who to believe. They're both wonderful people.

  8. I actually like the film of Mamma Mia as well; I think it is a lot of fun. I love ABBA and not ironically either, so when I heard they were doing a version with that cast I was actually looking forward to it. Even though I had not enjoyed the stage version, I hoped that I would enjoy the film more. Seeing it in the cinema was so much fun as the crowd were all singing along. We then watched it at home with my family including my grandparents and my much younger siblings who were all highly enjoying it and also singing along. I know there are many flaws but I prefer to enjoy the fun of it. There is also the French and Saunders parody of the film, which I really love. Fun fact Judy Craymer, the producer of Mamma Mia, was a long term French and Saunders fan but it was this parody that inspired her to hook up with Jennifer Saunders to do a musical together, Viva Forever. This was another musical critics hated, but it had a standing – ovation every night. I couldn't get tickets so I am hoping to see it on tour. They even parodied Judy in the sketch, which Judy said she highly enjoyed; ‘I think the genius I had was to think of ABBA.’

    I really love Rent. I had a few wonderful experiences around Rent, which make this movie very special to me, including connecting with someone over it who is now one of my closet friends. I warn people when they first watch Rent, there is a likelihood you will not like this movie at all at first. There is a point where you might even want to switch it off. However, stick with it, get to the end and then watch it again after that. People who have followed this advice are now massive fans of the film so maybe I am onto something there. It usually gets a bit misty at the end every time I watch it.

    On a clear day you can see forever. I love this movie so much. I think this is little known outside of the Streisand fan community, but inside it is adored and quoted often. Mostly I love Daisy Gamble. I was so annoyed with myself when I left Daisy off my list of favourite movie characters! It is a very unique film, very weird but I think very cool and very funny. I wish more people would see it!

    Yentl is on this list as well as it is one of my favourite movies. I have written about it and given a presentation on it. I think this film is filled with ideas and that it is subversive. I plan on turning my essay, which was actually centred on this idea, into a blog post soon. This was Barbra’s passion project. Anyone who co – writes, produces, stars, directs, stages the musical numbers, and produces the soundtrack to a film has a lot of passion for the project it has to be said. I have many really great stories I learnt through researching this film about how much she gave to this film, but I think you can see it all over the film. I am very biased though!

    I am actually working on a list of underrated movies and have a few musicals on there so it was hard reducing it to just those three!

  9. I'm with you JB - I watched it when it came out on blu-ray without any knowledge of the critical reaction to it and I've always been surprised at all the hate I've heard about it since. I wouldn't say I love it or anything but certainly enjoyed it more than I thought I would, for all the reasons you list, and wouldn't be opposed to watching it again - if my wife wanted to. :)