Set on a small Mediterranean island where matriarch Donna (Meryl Streep) runs a rustic inn, Mamma Mia! announces itself as an opiate for the masses early on. Donna explains a crack in the courtyard floor as a sign of the island's erosion, then adds, "Don't think about it." Mamma Mia! is designed as a diversion from entropy and the anxiety it inspires (particularly in priveledged, middle-aged housewives). The cure, according to Mamma Mia!, is nostalgia, as Donna's memories of a summer of love that never was (at least not in the late '80s) - a summer when three strapping Europeans (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) mounted her (not all at once, alas) - are renewed when her daughter (Amanda Seyfried) invites all three men to her wedding in the hopes of discovering which is her father. The movie not only plays into its target audience's wistful rememberances of things past, but also the rampant materialism (Streep, who employs the entire island, daydreams of having more money and a boat), middle-class notions of culture and unresolved daddy issues typical of the Me Generation. While Streep and the cast try gamely to keep things light, the frivolity is forced and suffocating. When Streep plays air guitar while friends Julie Walters and Christine Baranski frolic on a dock, we're supposed to be delighted by the sight of serious actresses letting loose. All I could think about was how terrible menopause must be.
The show's creators - producer Judy Craymer, writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd - have elected to write and direct the movie themselves, despite having never made or perhaps even seen a movie. Sometimes the result is inept, as when Brosnan was apparently instructed during one of Streep's ballads to stand completely still and do nothing. Other times, like when Firth morphs into a younger, mutton-chopped version of himself, it's trippier than The Wall. It's a movie that feels like it was directed by Chauncey Gardiner, a constant stream of subtextually frought images helmed by a filmmaker completely oblivious to their presence or meaning. I'm sure that the filmmakers would claim it's only meant as a fun romp, which would be fine, except it's also horribly shot and staged, and doesn't contain a single memorable dance number. For a musical that has its origins in the West End, it feels about as polished as a high school lip-sync (which will surely be its lasting cultural legacy).
But none of this should suggest I didn't have a lot of fun at Mamma Mia! I can completely understand why every actor signed on, and they find the right knowing approach to the material. Streep even manages to find authentic emotion in the hoariest of mother-daughter cliches. But my favorite performance, by far, is Stellan Skarsgard's. Playing a sea captain who writes award-winning travel books, Skarsgard cooks in the buff, flirts with Julie Walters and says lines like "I'll take a third" with straight-faced detachment. Which is exactly how I'd act if I found myself trapped in the troubling alternate universe that is Mamma Mia!