Watch Me Entertain Myself!

Sacha Guitry once said, "You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty." Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.
(pilot episode: 20 January 2004)

Monday, July 14, 2008


The direction is all wrong, the pacing is jumpy and suffers from too much cutting and unnecessary slow-mo’s, and the camera goes all over the place, as if the cinematographer realized that the location is better than the whole movie. Yes, I’m talking about Mamma Mia The Movie.

Even the magnificent Meryl Streep, who seems like she can pull off almost everything except a snuff film (though I can imagine she’ll kill herself over such a project), suffers. But not from her singing (she can carry a tune at least, and she knows how to put the right emotion into them) though; despite all her huffing, puffing and singing, she couldn’t show us a full character. And how could she? How could anyone? The characters are secondary to the songs and the excuse-of-a-plot that strings them all together. Which is something I can easily wrap my mind around, and the movie would have worked had the filmmakers playfully parodied the conventions of a movie musical. But they do not: in fact, they go to town (or rather, all over the island) with the conventions—breaking into song, big-cast dance numbers—with nary a wink at the audience (by the time Streep addresses the audience at the end credits, it’s already too little, too late).

Still, she (and the rest of the cast) delivers a spirited performance. She actually makes “Slipping Through My Fingers” a touching tribute to mothers everywhere, and turns the schmaltz-ready “The Winner Takes It All” into a tour de force of what a great actor can pull off even when singing a song that’s just a couple of notes shy of self-parody (her performance works because she chose to play it earnestly, like the original). In fact, that momentous number is indicative of what’s wrong with the movie. While Streep is blasting us all away with her talent, the director turns the number into a tour de force of their Steadicam operator’s skills. Meanwhile, the cinematographer can’t seem to make up his mind: should we be bowled over by Streep’s breath-taking performance or by the breathtaking location? (It is to Streep’s credit that the gasp-inducing scenery never upstages her.)

Normally in a musical the songs deliver an emotional power that either propels the plot forward or deepens the emotion of the moment. It is precisely this convention that allows the songs (and not the sight of big-named Hollywood stars wearing Lycra) to ride roughshod over the filmmakers’ lack of technical skills. Unfortunately I’ve always been a big fan of Abba, and not just in a “post-modern ironic” way. So I can thank them for the music and look at the bigger picture instead, and say: “Pretty to look at shot per shot, but badly strung together.” (Which can also apply to the music as well: great Abba songs do not a great musical make. But that’s another review altogether.)

Onstage the musical might have worked. But onscreen? So long, see you honey! / You can’t buy me with your money / You know it’s not worth trying / So long, so long, so long!

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Here’s a hilarious but loving review by Mark Kermode of BBC Radio 5 live:


Anonymous said...

Hi McVie. Great review. I haven't seen the movie but I've seen the musical. Lets just say its not any better than what you've seen. The story was too forced too predictable. I think I would have enjoyed it more if the performers just sang their own version of the Abba songs, instead the story just kept distracting me from the great music.

ONAI said...

its like they just made a musical with abba songs rather than a musical about the abba..

joelmcvie said...

@ONAI: Er... that was the point of making the musical, onstage and onscreen. It was never about Abba the group. =)