There’s something pleasing about the day-and-night clash in sensibilities between this weekend’s two big movies. In essence, they cancel each other out: the zero-sum, high-stakes, über-masculine gloom of The Dark Knight and the sunny, goofy gynotopia of Mamma Mia! (Universal Studios). I admired The Dark Knight enough to return a few days later for a second viewing, but Mamma Mia! is one of the few movies in years that I could have sat through a second time right then. Adapted from the long-running stage musical and directed by the show’s original director, Phyllida Lloyd, this playlist of ABBA hits cobbled together with the flimsiest of plots accomplishes the toughest task of the movie musical. It makes bursting spontaneously into song seem like a perfectly reasonable—indeed, highly desirable—thing to do, and it leaves the audience wanting to do the same. I see a big uptick in late-summer karaoke parties.
That’s assuming, of course, that the movie can herd women into theaters in anywhere near the numbers Sex and the City did earlier this summer. Meryl Streep has said about her twentysomething children that her singing, dancing lead role in Mamma Mia! “will mortify them. They’ll have to move to Alaska or someplace.” The same may be true of young female audiences whose idea of cool doesn’t include a 59-year-old woman dancing on a rooftop in overalls to the strains of the title song. But you know what? Those people can kiss Meryl’s denim-clad ass. What’s great about Mamma Mia! is its complete disconnect from cool, its conviction that middle-aged women in overalls (or spangled bell-bottoms) are the hottest thing going. The movie’s spirit is somewhere between High School Musical and Hedwig and the Angry Inch;it’s at once dorkily wholesome and proudly slutty. It posits a transgenerational, pansexual paradise that’s so deeply queer that when one of the characters comes out of the closet late in the movie, the revelation seems superfluous. We’ve just spent the last 90 minutes singing ABBA while line-dancing on docks in snorkeling flippers, and you’re telling us you’re gay? Big whoop.
Summarizing the wisp of a story seems more trouble than it’s worth, but fine: 20-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) runs a shabby B & B on a remote Greek island with her free-spirited single mother, Donna (Meryl Streep). On the eve of Sophie’s wedding to Sky (Dominic Cooper), she reveals to her bridesmaids that she’s secretly invited three men to the wedding, any one of whom could be her father (20 years before, it seems, Donna had quite a summer). The potential fathers, played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård, arrive in tandem, each believing he’s been invited by his old flame. Meanwhile, Donna welcomes her best friends and former backup singers Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). With the symmetrical silliness of a Shakespeare comedy, these individuals converge on the island for 24 hours of low-stakes suspense (Which of these handsome, rich, personable guys will turn out to be Sophie’s dad?), mix-and-match romantic pairings, and plenty of distinctly amateurish belting and hoofing.
That’s pretty much it, really. But Mamma Mia! still managed to have its way with everyone in the audience at the screening I attended, thanks to Streep’s barnstorming performance and the music of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the Swedish duo who wrote several dozen of the catchiest pop songs in history (and who appear in brief cameos here). Musical-theater purists may be put off by the uneven vocal talent: The impish Amanda Seyfried does have a pure, trilling ingénue voice, and Streep can sell a song like nobody’s business, even if she’s not exactly a singer. But some of the players, like Pierce Brosnan, are in way over their heads. (Brosnan’s big duet with Streep, “SOS,” generated unintended snickers, with the chorus sounding like a plea for musical rescue.)
Ultimately, Streep provides the movie’s life force; it’s almost hard to imagine that there are currently nine productions of Mamma Mia! worldwide not starring her. She has an uncanny understanding of how ABBA’s songs work on the listener: For all their melodic hooks and candy-fluff lyrics, they have a brutal emotional directness. Anyone who’s ever wept along to their car radio will thrill to Streep’s passionate delivery of “The Winner Takes It All” on a rocky outcrop (even though the song’s content has little to do with the narrative it’s supposed to advance). And anyone who’s used a hairbrush as a microphone should get off on the showstopping “Dancing Queen” number, in which an entire village of Greek women follows Streep and her cohort to the ocean Pied Piper-style, affirming their God-given ability to dance, jive, and have the time of their lives. The rest of you—well, you can always stay home and frown.