Though born with the gene for loving musicals, I lack the DNA sequence that allows for ABBA appreciation. Never got the Swedish quartet famous for its marimba-madcap music, Conehead lyrics, and Holiday Barbie costumes.
Having seen Mamma Mia!, Phyllida Lloyd's screen rendition of Judy Craymer and Catherine Johnson's $2 billion-at-the box-office-and-still-counting stage phenom, I still don't get it. But I have developed the grudging respect, if not the taste, for the ebullience - ABullience? - of the effervescent quartet that ruled the airwaves when rock went glam.
By turns entertaining and excruciating, Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical that strings together 19 ABBA hits on a narrative thread flimsier than dental floss, had me smiling and wincing, often at the same time.
Amanda Seyfried as Sophie, a prospective bride preparing her destination nuptials on a Greek island (cue big fat wedding joke), is the occasion for many of the smiles. She has pipes and pep enough for the entire cast. In a film that never finds a consistent tone (stage-trained Lloyd, a rookie film director, frames scenes as though under a proscenium), Seyfried supplies the sunshine. (You've seen this tawny blonde in Mean Girls and television's Big Love.)
Sophie is planning the first wedding in her immediate family and doesn't know who will give her away. She's never met Dad.
Unhindered, she invites three likely suspects: Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), Sam (Pierce Brosnan) and Harry (Colin Firth), far-flung exes of her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep, loose-limbed and -lipped), a onetime disco singer who now runs a B&B on an Aegean atoll.
The most cerebral of actresses even in her comic roles (think Devil Wears Prada), Streep makes her debut as a knockabout physical comic. The performance doesn't always work, but, man, is she ever game. Clearly, she is having the time of her life, although some of her costars look stricken.
There's Skarsgard, smiling a rictus smile that asks, "Has my manhood shriveled?" There's Firth, embodiment of forced mirth. And is that Brosnan or a donkey braying the lyrics of "S.O.S."?
Hard to tell whether my choking was laughter or that other choke reflex.
As Donna's best friends and erstwhile backup singers, (respectively, manhunter and busybody) Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are nicely cast.
The film has dancing of a clodhopperish sort, much stomping up steps, and much more fist-pumping and arm-wagging. (Choreographer Anthony Van Laast, who dance-directed the musical in London, also has worked for Siegfried & Roy.) Except for Baranski who moves like Cyd Charisse, the dancing isn't notable.
My 12-year-old loved, loved, loved the movie and thinks I'm wrong, wrong, wrong to find it less than perfect. Sssh! Don't tell her. Also don't tell her that I wept when Streep sings to Seyfried a soulful rendition of "Slipping Through My Fingers," a parent/daughter ballad with the lyrics:
"Do I really see what's in her mind?
Each time I think I'm close to knowing
She keeps on growing
Slipping through my fingers all the time."
The ABBA movie, like the group itself, defies criticism.