After I saw Mamma Mia! on stage almost four years ago, people would ask me how it was, and my answer was pretty simple: If you love silly musicals and ABBA, you’ll love it. If you don’t love one or both of those things, you’ll want to rip your own ears off. This is the kind of information I would file under, “Duh. Big duh.” And yet, I’ve read several reviews of the movie version that begin with the reviewer confessing that he or she is not really a fan of ABBA, musicals, or both — then talking about just how much they hated the movie, as if this came as a shock. Really? At least Roger Ebert (who didn’t even like the stage version) acknowledges that his personal distaste for the movie’s central hook diminishes the importance of his opinion to its target market:
[T]here are the wall-to-wall songs by ABBA, if you like that sort of thing. I don’t, not much, with a few exceptions.
But here’s the fact of the matter. This movie wasn’t made for me. It was made for the people who will love it, of which there may be a multitude. The stage musical has sold 30 million tickets, and I feel like the grouch at the party. So let me make that clear and proceed with my minority opinion.
And that right there is one of the many reasons why I love Roger Ebert. He at least gets that he doesn’t get it. (Though for Pete’s sake, he then goes on to bitch about the plot being thin. Once again, this is a MUSICAL based on ABBA SONGS. Are you kidding me?) Contrast this with Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, who says:
The brassy, bawdy musical “Mamma Mia!” presents itself as a piece of clever counter-programming to this summer’s surfeit of pounding, effects-driven comic-book movies… But filmgoers eager to sample its sunny, synth-pop pleasures are likely to feel just as bludgeoned: in this case by an Abba-bomb wrapped in a huge turquoise-colored feather boa.
Honey, those eager filmgoers are eager precisely because we want to be bludgeoned by an ABBA-bomb. Er… something like that. That’s the fucking point. If you like spangled polyester costumes and infectious ’70s pop and middle-aged women cracking themselves up every ten seconds, a turquoise-boa-wrapped ABBA-bomb doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all. And if you don’t like that stuff, what the hell are you doing at Mamma Mia!? (I mean, besides getting paid to write a review.)
That’s not to say the movie is perfect even if you do love that shit, which I totally do. If half the fun of the stage version for you is its very stageyness, be aware that like 75% of that is gone. (Some of that’s to be expected, obvy, but I’ve certainly seen movie musicals that retain a lot more of that feel.) There’s not nearly enough dancing in it for my tastes, in part because a lot of the musical numbers involve an obsessive focus on the singer, instead of shots big enough to contain the frothy group energy that makes me love musicals. And the only major actor with a typical Broadway voice is Christine Baranski — the others’ voices range from adequate (Pierce Brosnan) to lovely (Meryl Streep, Julie Walters), but they don’t sound particularly ABBAish or Broadwayish here, which cuts the fun somewhat. Also, this means Baranski often ends up sounding like that one lady in church who belts the shit out of hymns from the back row because her domestic suburban lifestyle affords her no other opportunity to show off her pipes — great voice, but it calls way too much attention to itself. On the other hand, when Baranski gets a solo, it is 100% awesome. “Does Your Mother Know?” would be worth the price of admission even if the rest of the movie completely sucked, and that number had me really wishing they’d cast the whole thing with musical theater stars instead of movie stars. (Yeah, I know, there’s overlap there, but seriously, see the movie and tell me Baranski doesn’t scream “BROADWAY DIVA!” while everyone else is screaming, “HI, I’M A FILM ACTOR WHO CAN SING TO SOME DEGREE!”)
Still, the rest of the movie doesn’t completely suck, if you like that sort of thing. No, scratch that — if you love that sort of thing. Al likes both ABBA and musicals all right, but he doesn’t love them like I do, so he went into it with some trepidation (Me: “Where do you want to sit?” Al: “In the theater where The Dark Knight is playing”), and walked out of it demanding that I buy him a drink and quit bitching about having to sit through Crank two years ago. (Never. I will never stop bitching about that.) So if you have any doubts about whether this is your kind of movie, it’s probably not. But I enjoyed it.
And now, I shall attempt to make this post something appropriate to a body acceptance blog, instead of just me rambling about a movie ’cause that’s all I felt like rambling about today. As I said somewhere in comments recently, one of the main reasons I wanted to see Mamma Mia! right away was to support the rare film written, directed, produced by, and starring women — women over 50, at that. And the whole thing surely does have a gallopingly feminine sensibility. This is not just a movie for girls; it’s a movie for girly girls. (I love watching women squeal with delight over each other’s company for like 30 seconds at a time, but I know plenty of other women who wouldn’t, to say nothing of Al.)
Furthermore, it’s a movie that celebrates older girly-girls in a way that invites younger ones — and men — to the party, but never makes it about them. I read somewhere (possibly in comments here) that Meryl Streep said her twentysomething children will be utterly mortified by her performance in Mamma Mia!, and I can totally see that. It’s not just the singing and dancing — she acquits herself perfectly well on both counts — but that the plot (such as it is) hangs on her really, really not acting her age. If it were my own mom up there, I might feel differently, and the movie does occasionally veer a little too much into Red Hat territory for my tastes (i.e., too much self-conscious “Look at us being ZANY! Isn’t it a SCREAM?” action). But mostly, it’s totally believable that once her besties and old boyfriends show up, Streep’s character instinctively starts acting like she’s in her twenties again. That’s kinda what you do. (I end up with a massive hangover after I get together with a certain one of my friends from grad school, every fucking time, and we’re already way too old for it. But somehow, I don’t think that’ll be any different when we’re 50.)
And that’s exactly what’s so charming — and transgressive — about the movie. A bunch of fiftysomething women dance around in disco-era costumes, and it’s meant to look like a good time, not a pathetic joke. There’s not a fat actress in the bunch, of course — or an actress of color, which I forgot to note when I first posted — but still, this is not how we’re used to seeing older female bodies on screen. They’re not desexualized, for one thing — but they’re also not played too far the other way, to the point where the audience is meant to laugh at the old girl thinking she’s still got it. These old(ish) girls do still got it, as a matter of fact. Part of what makes “Does Your Mother Know?” such an awesome number is that Baranski hits the perfect balance between, “Why, yes, of course, a virile young man is hot for me” and “Oh, please, honey, I’m old enough to be your mother.” There’s neither self-deprecation nor self-delusion to it, which is a pretty amazing thread running through the whole movie, actually. Streep and Walters remark on Baranski’s plastic surgery and expensive moisturizer (now with more donkey testicles), but they don’t dwell on being less painstakingly preserved themselves, apologize for looking their ages, or try to tear her down for all the artificial assistance — nor does she suggest they should be doing anything else. They all just are what they are, and they’re cool with it.
Of course, Walters’s big man-chasing number (“Take a Chance on Me”) is played for laughs — she’s the frumpiest of the three and least happy about being single — but the important thing (in context) is, she gets the dude. No matter how baggy her costumes or pushy her character, the message still gets through that any man who would pass on Julie Walters is a stone cold idiot. That’s a message I can get behind. And as for Streep, she gets to make out with Pierce Brosnan. ‘Nuff said.
So okay, let’s talk about Pierce Brosnan — and Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard. It is, frankly, weird to see these three men in supporting roles, while the women completely and utterly take center stage. Though they’re playing Streep’s old boyfriends, these are categorically girlfriend roles; the guys exist mainly to look nice, drive the plot forward as necessary, and sometimes take their shirts off. How fucking rare is that? Although I was thoroughly sick of the phrase “male gaze” by the end of just one feminist film theory class, I must say, I can’t think of another movie I’ve seen that so unabashedly employs the female gaze. Not just because there’s lots of eye candy for straight chicks, but because even male viewers are truly expected to identify with the female characters and see everything through a woman’s eyes. Meaning both that there’s no male hero and that in a movie set on a Greek island, there are no lingering shots of hot young girls in bikinis. Amanda Seyfried is plenty gorgeous in a fairly demure one-piece, but the point is not to be turned on by her, even if you are. Granted, most of the time she’s in a bathing suit, she’s hanging out with men who are old enough to be (and indeed might be) her father, but I can’t help suspecting a male director would have glossed over that pesky little fact and put her in a more revealing suit anyway — ’cause, you know, why waste that body? Meanwhile, when Baranski rocks a somewhat less demure, blazing red one-piece, we are supposed to think she’s hot — but in a way that encourages the viewer to think, “Hey, maybe I’m that hot, too!” not “Yeah, I’d hit that.”
For my money, the female gaze is exactly what throws so many male reviewers about Mamma Mia! The movie, as Ebert noted, wasn’t made for them. It’s not just that the poor widdle straight men are forced to watch a bunch of chicks doing chick stuff to an ABBA soundtrack, it’s that they’re supposed to identify with chicks doing chick stuff. They’re supposed to share in the joy when they hear old girlfriends squealing together, imagine themselves on stage rocking “Super Trouper” in sparkly polyester, and fantasize about what they might do with a shirtless Pierce Brosnan. They’re supposed to put themselves in the metallic boots — and behind the eyes — of a bunch of women, taking the same sort of gender-swapping imaginative leap women are expected to make, oh, only about EVERY GODDAMNED TIME WE GO TO THE MOVIES. Seriously, other movies I have seen this summer: Indiana Jones, Iron Man, Wanted, The Dark Knight. If I tried to identify with the female characters instead of the male heroes in those movies, I’d have been bored right out of my fucking skull. Likewise, the man who watches Mamma Mia! and attempts to envision Pierce Brosnan as someone he wants to be, not someone he wants to bang, is pretty much screwed (so to speak). To enjoy it, you’ve got to want to be Meryl Streep. And men are really not used to being put in that position at the movies because, you know, THEY NEVER ARE.
So, to sum up… It’s nowhere near as electrifying as the stage production, which I highly recommend. But considering a ticket to the movie is a hundred-odd bucks cheaper, I can’t complain too much about that — and the movie has tons of other things to recommend it, including some fucking awesome images of fiftysomething women inhabiting and enjoying their bodies instead of hiding and apologizing for them. I might go see it again just to boggle at that rarity once more.
But, you know, if you don’t love ABBA and musicals, you’ll want to rip your own ears off. That caveat still applies.