It’s the dumbest damn thing—a reworking of the Frankie and Annette bikini cheesefest sing-alongs and Gina Lollobrigida’s Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. By any aesthetic measure Mamma Mia! shouldn’t work; after all, the musical exalts the schlock rock of ABBA, Catherine Johnson’s script is contrivance personified, the HGTV-Design on a Dime soundstage sets over-compensatedly lit and exercising less than melodious vocal cords are Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth. But work it does; the whole shebang has a friendly slummy clumsiness—it’s summerstock on the sexy Greek isles. Every star, including Julie Walters and Christine Baranski (who does a beachy homage to Annette and Hairspray), went into this trifle with the sole purpose of having fun and the fiesta mood spills onto audiences who receive a super drenching of energy. With one caveat: ABBA’s disco psalmodies may end up looping in your head as an after-effect. Some surprises, one of which will not be mentioned here in the event you don’t know what’s revealed at the church, but one that will: Brosnan has been undeservingly attacked and awarded a Razzie for his performance probably because when he starts to sing, he’s so naturally off that you’d be inclined to think he is bad. Don’t rush to accept the under-30 “American Idol” standards: when he and Streep are singing “SOS,” there’s a real poignancy in his voice; resembling Richard Anderson when the camera closes in, he’s expressing maybe the only felt emotion in the movie. Streep, otherwise having a ball in drag looking a bit like Stevie Nicks, is stuck with a near-aria on the way to her daughter’s wedding that’s not quite as acceptable; trying for stop-the-show dramatics she’s handicapped not only by a terrible song—“The Winner Takes It All”—but also by its inept staging. As you watch, you’re thinking that any minute she’ll throw a diva fit about the impossible task she’s asked to accomplish. I mean, it’s Meryl Streep for God’s sake, doing her first full length movie musical and here she is, with arms flaying, blurting out twenty years worth of nincompoop frustration against romantic Shangri-La imagery (which looks a lot like California). Oh how she needs a pro’s handling and unfortunately director Phyllida Lloyd just isn’t experienced enough with film scale to provide the equalizing orchestration. (For once we wish Robert Wise were around for pointers.) And Streep doesn’t quite look like she’s lived on a Greek island all these years; her (bottled) tan lacks the locale’s dark olive imprint, the sun-bleached hair annoyingly catgutty, and though she has the gleam of a worn plumpy hippie, the Levi’s overalls a little too unwashed. What Streep does achieve is sky-high amicability; she’s looser now, freed from all the zippers and buttons of her acting suits. Singing with pith, smooching with palpable hunger, she’s unabashedly showing her moxie. Mamma Mia! has a very welcomed infectiousness—the primitive beat of “Voulez-Vous” promotes crotch spreading—and well, Honey Honey, dot, dot, dot...

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2009 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.