Why would the big screen's greatest actress of her generation sink her boatload of Oscar nods into an inconsequential musical based on songs by a group some people laugh at? Because Meryl Streep can do whatever she wants. She is an actor who can really sing (as distinct from a singer who can really act - that would be Streisand) and gives her star turn in Mamma Mia! more emotional depth than anyone has done in a similar genre since Babs brought Funny Girl! to the screen. And I'm including Liza Minelli's Oscar-winning performance in Cabaret when I say that.
Streep plays Donna, the fortysomething ex-hippie trying to run a hotel on Greek island. She's hosting the wedding of her daughter Sophie, who uses the occasion to find out who her real father is. She finds some clues in her mother's diary and, without telling mummy, sends wedding invites to all three of the guys Donna was sleeping with at the time she got pregnant.
The movie doesn't always live up to its star. Tthe sound mix is just awful. The balance can change five times within one song, which is too bad, because ABBA's songs are actually better show tunes than pop songs. The dance numbers, especially those choreographed on the hotel terrace, are ho-hum. Amanda Seyfried is only irritating as Sophie and did I mention that members of the preview audience burst out laughing when Pierce Brosnan burst into song?
The film also commits the cardinal film musical sin of attempting to shoot intimate numbers in natural settings. That strategy killed Milos Forman's adaptation of Hair and here almost sinks Streep's otherwise brilliant rendition of The Winner Takes It All [Video]. But the islands of Skiathos and Skopelos look terrific when Lloyd shoots a musical sequence with the larger company. Lay All Your Love On Me [Video] keeps the flipper fins from the original musical number to huge effect. And Lloyd turns Dancing Queen into a glorious paean to female power - expect applause from the audience.
Christine Baranski and Julia Walters play Donna's best friends as broadly as they can get away with - and they do get away with it. Baranski has the funniest line in the movie, about doing yoga and her feet - you have to be there. The threesome, plus the script mining of the mother-daughter theme, makes this an irresistible chick flick for boomer babes.
But it's Streep who takes this adaptation to the next level. She gives gravitas to the fluff in ways I'm sure even those who take ABBA seriously would not think possible. The gods were smiling on the Mamma Mia! team when she took this project on.
But what am I saying? Meryl Streep is a god.