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, the cast exercising hit & miss melodious vocals. But work it does; the whole shebang has a friendly slummy clumsiness—it’s shitskabob on the sexy Greek isles. Every star, including Mery Streep, Pierce Brosnan, 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 I will disclose: Brosnan has been undeservingly attacked and awarded a Razzie for his performance probably because when he starts to sing, he’s so naturally off 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 (The Long Hot Summer) 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 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 any minute she’ll throw a diva fit about the impossible task she’s asked to accomplish. I mean, it’s Meryl, 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. Oh, how she needs a pro’s handling and unfortunately director Phyllida Lloyd couldn’t seek out Robert Wise for some pointers. And Streep doesn’t quite look like she’s been on a Greek island all these years; her bottled tan lacks the locale’s a live-in 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.