For a couple of decades now, the stars of big movies have been trending younger, until it seemed that the next generation of the Hollywood élite would emerge not from high schools but from the womb. This summer, though, has brought good news for geriatric actors--those over 30. Harrison Ford, who at 66 is, in movie years, practically a sequoia, looked at least as vigorous as the Indiana Jones film he headlined. Comic-book epics also have middle-aged men in lead roles: Robert Downey Jr., 43, in Iron Man and 58-year-old Ron Perlman in Hellboy II. The cosmo-swigging quartet of Sex and the City range in age from 42 to 51, yet the film has earned about $350 million worldwide. Elders are getting a little respect. In action films and romantic comedy, old is new.
Now the big genre challenge: musicals. The very form is antique. Young filmgoers often have to be told why the people in these movies are suddenly singing instead of speaking. And nothing dates faster than musical styles. The great American songbook of Gershwin and Porter and Rodgers standards can sound positively atonal to teen ears, just as hip-hop seems melody-deficient to the folks with hearing aids.
So who'll go see Mamma Mia!, the new movie based on the 1999 stage show with nearly two dozen songs by the Swedish pop group Abba that were hits some two decades earlier? One guess: a lot of the women who saw Sex and the City, plus kids who loved High School Musical, plus some gay guys. And, a big plus, most of those who saw the original musical, which by now has grossed over $2 billion--more than any movie has ever earned in theaters.
But making a mint could be a struggle. The other big film musicals of this decade--Chicago, Dreamgirls and Hairspray--had casts of mostly young actors. The Mamma Mia! contingent is different, as will now be proved with a précis of the movie's plot (a knockoff of the 1968 comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell) and a few actuarial stats.
Donna (Meryl Streep, 59), an American who runs a little hotel on a remote Greek island, has invited two old friends, Tanya (Christine Baranski, 56) and Rosie (Julie Walters, 58), to join her for the wedding of her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, who is, all right, 22). Sophie, who doesn't know who her father is, has found Donna's diary from the summer she got pregnant. Her dad must be one of the three men mentioned in the diary. Sophie lures them all to the island--Sam (Pierce Brosnan, 55), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard, 57) and Harry (Colin Firth, the baby at 47). They arrive the day before the wedding, and intrigue ensues. Who's the real father? Will Donna be able to cope with three thorny reminders of her wild youth? And how will the movie shoehorn such Abba hits as Waterloo and Money, Money, Money into this far-fetched farrago?
The last question is the easiest to answer. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the boy half of Abba, may have been writing for the Top 40, but their songs explored a gamut of dramatic situations, from the vagaries of celebrity (Super Trouper, Does Your Mother Know) to the wistfulness a woman feels as her daughter grows up (Slipping Through My Fingers). And since Abba's vocalists were women (Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog), the guys composed enough hits over the group's nine-year run to accommodate all the female characters in Mamma Mia!
Great Music, Weird Movie
We'll say this once, then run for cover: Abba was not just the top-selling group of the '70s; Andersson and Ulvaeus created the smartest, most buoyant body of work from any pop group since the Beatles. Their gaudy gear, with the spangles and spandex, made them easy to deride, but their real sin was that they lacked "depth," which is to say they didn't pretend to be miserable. Instead, like pop performers from an earlier age, they pretended to be happy. Their music did too. The lyrics to the song Mamma Mia confess to erotic obsession and serial masochism, but the perky melody puts the pain at an ironic distance. It was heartache you could disco to. That's why millions of people, not all of them idiots, felt better listening to Abba's music. Hearing it now, people still do.
That's the mood the Mamma Mia! movie tries to tap, but with a sledgehammer. The cast, especially the older women, is given to giggles and girlish body language. You're meant to think everyone making the film had a great time, so you should too. At one point, Streep shouts, "Let's go have fun!" But the bonhomie is oppressive; the high spirits are not impromptu but imposed: Listen, people, you vill haff fun!
The chief exponent, or perp, is Streep. She's lively and limber, executing a saddle jump to gymnastic perfection while bouncing on a bed and singing Dancing Queen. But she also spends a long part of the film in a strenuous simulacrum of pleasure. She has the laughs the way a consumptive has the coughs. You worry that when Streep dies and goes to Actor Heaven, the recording angel will say, "On this scale we have decades of transcendent performances, and on this scale, that Mamma Mia! thing. Begone!"
One problem is that the creators of the stage show--producer Judy Craymer, writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd--gave themselves the job of turning it into a big movie, but none had ever worked on one, and the inexperience shows. A small point: the glare of the Greek sunlight is punishing to the face of anyone over 30. A larger one: the dance numbers are edited so choppily that the rhythm and feeling of the songs suffer.
Surrendering to the Feeling
The inanities multiply. Firth's character has a reverie song, Our Last Summer, but it's about Paris, not Greece. And all the chat about the year Sophie was conceived evokes hippies and flower power, which suggest 1967, but the film is set in the present, so that ecstatic summer was more like 1987, when the cry was less "Free love!" than "Let's not have sex because we might die."
Eventually, as Donna and her gal pals don trashy frocks to do Abba's greatest hits and a Greek chorus of villagers materializes as a backup group for practically every number, Mamma Mia!'s flouting of narrative and visual logic starts to suggest a cunning subversion. The film is not failed kitsch but triumphant Dada. It exists in an alternative universe, an Abbaworld, where 40 years telescopes to 20, the Seine is the Aegean, and Streep's outsize cheerfulness is the expression of a soul in mortal panic.