[Screen It]

(2008) (Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan) (PG-13)

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Musical: A woman must contend with her daughter inviting three men to her own wedding, one of which is the father the girl has never known.
Donna Sheridan (MERYL STREEP) is the former lead singer of Donna and the Dynamos turned manager of a rundown villa situated on a picturesque Greek isle and runs the place with the help of her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (AMANDA SEYFRIED). With the latter about to tie the knot with the handsome Sky (DOMINIC COOPER), Donna is busily preparing the place for the pending nuptials, and is happy when her best friends and former backup singers, Rosie (JULIE WALTERS) and Tanya (CHRISTINE BARANSKI), arrive for the festivities.

They're not the only guests from Donna's past, however, as Sophie has gone through her mom's old diary in search of clues about her father's identity. Chronologically narrowing it down to three men, she invites Sam Carmichael (PIERCE BROSNAN), Harry Bright (COLIN FIRTH) and Bill Anderson (STELLAN SKARSGÅRD) to her wedding in hopes that she'll instantly recognize the one who's her biological dad.

Unfortunately, she can't, and Donna's certainly not pleased to see an unlikely reunion of her past lovers who've never met until this moment. From that point on, Donna must deal with that as Sophie tries to pick out her father, with the romantic tale set to the songs by the Swedish pop group ABBA.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
Let's face it, as originally seen on paper, the idea of taking the songs from a Swedish pop group that hit its heyday some thirty years earlier, and turning them into a Broadway musical seemed questionable at best, and an outright nightmare to some. After all, the disco friendly and harmonizing heavy songs from ABBA, such as "Dancing Queen," "Take a Chance on Me" and "SOS" don't initially seem like the best fit for a run on the Great White Way.

Yet, and acknowledging there isn't a great deal of depth to them, they are songs about various aspects of love, thematic elements that have been known to ooze to the surface a time or two in stage productions. With the aid of the group's male singers, Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, creative producer Judy Craymer and director Phyllida Lloyd managed to arrange them into a lightweight narrative and the resultant show, "Mamma Mia!" opened in 1999. From there, it entertained audiences reportedly numbering in the tens of millions and is still playing on Broadway as well as cities around the world.

Accordingly, and with the resurgence of the Hollywood musical, it seemed like a good idea -- on paper and in terms of a potentially lucrative moneymaker -- to bring this fluffy entertainment to the big screen. What raised eyebrows, however, was word that all of the principal stage cast would be replaced by more familiar faces from the other coast, some of which most people wouldn't normally associate with being of the song and dance type.

Of course, it's not the first and certainly won't be the last time that happens, and while some of the cast range from fine to good in their parts, others stand out like sore thespian thumbs, likely to have the dogs and various humans howling in decidedly less than ecstatic delight.

Yes, Pierce Brosnan, that's a reference to you and while some may say a horrible singer like yours truly shouldn't be casting stones, I wasn't paid a presumably handsome salary to perform "SOS" and other numbers. I've liked Brosnan from the Remington Steele days up through Bond and Thomas Crown, but the guy clearly can't sing, and what he belts out sounds more akin to yelling than some sort of pleasing tonal delivery. And seeing him in the closing, under-credits number wearing an ABBA inspired jumpsuit will forever wipe away any 007 memories.

He plays one of the three men (along with Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård) brought back to a Greek isle some twenty years after one of them fathered a young women (Amanda Seyfried) who initially appears will be the story's main character, as her nuptials are immediately pending.

But the plot thrust is really about introducing the protagonist, the bride-to-be's mother played by the ultra versatile Meryl Streep. Having proved she can sing back in "Prairie Home Companion," the multi-Oscar winning actress fares much better than her male costar, even if her initial appearances of dancing and jumping around in denim overalls quickly gets old (it's apparently an attempt to make the nearly 60-year-old actress better match up with her much younger character).

That is, unless one likes their musicals and comedy played ultra-broadly, which is how Catherine Johnson has penned the script and director Phyllida Lloyd (who makes her film debut after helming the theatrical production) instructs the actors to perform. It's an approach that made the likes of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" so popular, but for those who don't enjoy that sort of sitcom-y tone with slightly exaggerated characters, it can become grating in short order. In particular, that refers to Christine Baranski and Julie Waters as Streep's wise-cracking but loyal best friends who chew through every scene with zest.

But it's Lloyd's overall shot selection and arrangement (along with the efforts of editor Lesley Walker and choreographer Anthony Van Laast) that end up giving Brosnan's singing a run for their money in terms of being disappointing. The direction is pedestrian at best (even with more camera movement than a story like this deserves or needs) and continuity between inter-cut shots isn't as sharp as one would like to see.

Yet, some of the musical numbers are infectiously entertaining, but that can be attributed far more to ABBA's original songs than pretty much anything anyone here does with them. Of course, that's directly proportional to one's acceptance and/or enjoyment of those tunes now or back in the day. So if you found or still find them the equivalent of nails down the chalkboard, the singing of them by non-singers in musical form might be the equivalent of cinematic torture.

On the other hand, if one enjoys the music, broadly played comedy, and light and fluffy Broadway musicals (or movie versions of the same), this film might be right up their alley. Fleetingly entertaining but suffering from the replacement of real song and dance people with Hollywood stars (some of whom couldn't sing themselves out of a corner) and an uneven and blasé directorial approach, "Mamma Mia!" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 7, 2008 / Posted July 18, 2008

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