In the dippy warp of anti-renaissance that was the 1970s, ABBA thrived, and, via fare such as “Mamma Mia!” — a new movie based on the play — the defunct pop supergroup continues to unleash its too-catchy songs on the world. Shift your mind-set into fluff mode, and this film should mildly satisfy. But an unoriginal, uneven presentation of the songbook and the sunshine hampers things considerably.
The movie’s a stream of ABBA numbers (by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) with smidgens of a story inserted between them,courtesy of director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Catherine Johnson — first-time filmmakers reprising their theatrical roles. The setting is a photogenic Greek island. The star is Meryl Streep, who is thankfully unable to shelve her entire IQ as she sings, dances and transcends the script in the role of Donna.
Donna, a former rocker, runs a crumbling hotel and has a 20-year-old bride-to-be daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). Sophie, unbeknownst to Donna, invites three of Donna’s ex-boyfriends (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard) to the wedding, believing that she’ll figure out which one is her father. The sight of the guys after all these years unnerves Donna. Let the title song begin.
Additional featured songs are “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” “Super Trouper” and “The Winner Takes It All,” among others, performed in settings ranging from bedrooms to beaches. Key events include bachelor and bachelorette parties and a wedding climax where pronouncements and new couplings occur.
The movie has zest and energy. The bigger musical numbers, which include everything from flipper-clad beach-boy choruses to female islanders exhibiting “Dancing Queen” abandon, are particularly entertaining.
But too often, the film feels like an effort to reproduce a lucrative stage venture, with middling results. The choreography’s largely arm-flapping and jumping. The songs barely reflect the plot. The story’s dumb. The romantic elements lack juice.
Such shortcomings would sink the film were it not for Streep, who, in addition to singing adeptly and dancing heartily, brings dimension to her flimsily written character. She gives the mother-daughter element poignancy; her belting of “The Winner Takes It All” can’t redeem this second-rate song, but it conveys Donna’s emotional situation.
Brosnan, meanwhile, isn’t so vocally blessed, and when he opens his mouth and sings, he’s so wrong that you can only embrace his good sportsmanship and giggle at the silliness of this endeavor.
Starring: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried
Written by: Catherine Johnson
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd
Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes