Mamma Mia! (2008) (part 1 of 3)
Welcome to the ninth installment of Razzie Contenders: 2009 Edition! In this special series of recaps, the Agony Booth staff takes a long, unflinching look at the awful movies that got nominated (or should have been nominated) for Razzie Awards in 2009!
Mamma Mia! is arguably the single most popular film ever recapped on the Agony Booth. It has taken in an astonishing $598 million worldwide for Universal, making it by far the highest-grossing musical of all time.
Mamma Mia! is also the highest-grossing movie of any sort in the UK, beating out Titanic. It’s also the fastest-selling DVD ever in the UK, even though the movie is still in theatres there. This conclusively proves my theory that the English are not just quaint, little people who spell the word “theater” wrong, they are actually clinically deranged.
Despite all of this adulation, I am begging you not to see this movie.
Now, let me make two things perfectly clear. One: I love musicals. I love them. Grease? Know every word. Chicago? Saw it on Broadway twice, in the theater three times, own the DVD, have Queen Latifah in my basement. Li’l Abner? Jerry Lewis had an uncredited role. Hello, Dolly? Matthau wouldn’t even talk to Streisand. I saw Annie with Andrea McArdle, Cabaret with Joel Grey, and Five Guys Named Moe with, um, people. Suffice it to say, if anybody in the New York metropolitan area has ever broken into song for any reason, I’ve seen it.
Two: I love ABBA. I was born in 1970. ABBA was the music of my sexual awakening (along with Asia and an unbelievable amount of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”). “The Winner Takes It All” was the song I played when Amy Becker broke my heart by making me too terrified to even talk to her. “Dancing Queen” was the theme of my Bar Mitzvah.
But I’m not gay. I will always treasure the night I took my wife to see Mamma Mia! on Broadway. I remember she was uncomfortable because she was seven months pregnant. With my child. With whom I impregnated her. By having sex. Because I’m not gay.
So, when I hate on Mamma Mia!, the movie (and there will be some serious hating), it’s not a musical thing, and it’s not an ABBA thing. It’s not one of those deals where I hate everything that’s popular. Awards mean nothing. Forget the Hollywood Foreign Press. They hailed Twilight as “a brilliant choice for Secretary of the Interior.”
The fact is, as my acting teacher Dr. Desmond Forest Oats once told me, it’s just not very good. I’m not alone in this opinion. According to Rotten Tomatoes, 163 reviewers came together to give Mamma Mia! a mediocre 53%. Most agreed with Pablo Villaca, who said, “Mamma Mia! Beatles? Não, é ABBA! Ai, ai! O filme nunca acaba!”
What makes Mamma Mia! so bad? It’s a bit hard to explain. Take the plot. The stupid, stupid plot. A class of fourth-graders doing a post-recess brainstorming exercise would be hard-pressed to devise a less moronic plot. But does that ruin the movie? It does not.
The truth is, almost all musicals have paper-thin plots. My favorite musical of all time ends when pirates, who are just about to murder the local police, give up for the extraordinarily uncompelling reason that the police sergeant asks them to. And then, as a reward, they’re allowed to get married. My second-favorite musical actually ends a couple minutes into the second act. The narrator literally says, “This would be a happy ending, perfect place to stop the show.” Then, the play goes on for another forty minutes.
Here, for the record, is the plot of Mamma Mia!:
Former ’70s disco singer Donna (Meryl Streep) is now a single mother and the owner of a dilapidated hotel on a dilapidated Greek island (let’s call it Dilapidos). Her daughter, Sophie, is marrying Sky, a native of mediocre intellect. Sky also does not appear to own any clothing.
Sophie decides that she wants her father to give her away. The problem is that Sophie doesn’t know whom her father is. Yes, I said “whom”. I like grammar, that doesn’t make me gay. Anyway, Sophie takes the logical step of stealing her mother’s diary.
From the diary, we learn a few things. First, Donna was an enormous slut. She slept with three men in such a short span of time that any of them could be Sophie’s father. She had a love affair with an Irish businessman named Sam (Pierce Brosnan). He, however, returned to his fiancée and, at some point, had two sons. She then quickly slept with a stodgy Englishman named Harry (Colin Firth), and then Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), a guy who had a boat. And that was just in the two weeks during which Sophie might have been conceived.
The second thing we learn is that Sophie is the flightiest character in all of modern fiction. She makes Daisy Buchanan look like a brilliant choice for Secretary of the Interior.
The third thing we learn is that Sam, Harry, and Bill are, in all likelihood, retarded. The men (one of whom lives in England, one in the US, and one appears to have no fixed address) receive invitations to a wedding on Dilapidos. And they all show up. And none of them know why.
Now, thirteen years, nine months ago, I was living in Atlanta. I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly a playa, but if I got an invitation to the Bar Mitzvah of a kid in Kennesaw, Georgia, the thought that I might be his father would at least fleetingly cross my mind.
Sam, Harry, and the guy who sails around on a boat meet Sophie. She swears them to secrecy. Then she hides them from her mother Donna, where they are found almost immediately by Donna. Seriously.
Donna thinks that Sophie doesn’t know that the three men are on the island, or that one of them is her father. So, she swears them to secrecy. Seriously. She then spends the rest of the movie slowly having a nervous breakdown. Seriously.
Hey, guess who else came for the wedding? Donna’s former bandmates, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). They both traveled to a small island off the coast of Greece. For a wedding. Of the daughter of a former bandmate. Whom they haven’t seen in twenty years. It seems a bit farfetched.
In any case, the Dynamos, as the three of them were once called, have been reunited. As you might expect, Tanya and Rosie try to cheer up Donna, who’s slowly having a nervous breakdown, by singing ABBA songs. Donna, however, remains mired in her existential crisis, which she expresses by singing ABBA songs.
On the beach, Sophie very nearly confesses all of her worries and fears to her fiancé, but stops herself, and instead sings an ABBA song. It’s a good thing, too. Nothing kills a musical faster than free and open communication.
At the bachelorette party that night, the Dynamos make their first appearance in 20 years. They sing an ABBA song.
Things are going well until the bachelor party crashes the bachelorette party (because, no surprise, there really is only one decent bar on Dilapidos). Then things go really well, and the whole crowd is so happy that they all sing an ABBA song.
During the party, Sam, Harry, and Bill each independently find Sophie and separately confess to being her father. She promises Sam that he can give her away at the wedding the next day. She makes the same promise to Harry. And then to Bill. Later, she just chucks the whole idea and asks her mother to give her away. Four different people think they’re giving the bride away! Comedy!
Also during the party, or thereabouts, Tanya hooks up with a much younger island man. Meanwhile, Rosie begins to pursue Bill. And then Harry hooks up with a much younger island man (yes, “man”; Harry comes out to everyone). And then Sam realizes he still loves Donna. Everybody got that?
Finally, it’s the day of the wedding, but Sophie is just not feeling it, dog. Sophie thought she could just look at the three guys and instantly know which one is her father, but she still can’t identify her mamma’s baby daddy. Is it just me, or does it seem somewhat cruel to make two men fly to your stupid island just so you can look them in the eyes and send them home? Mailing them a short questionnaire about widow’s peaks, dimples, and whether they can fold their tongue over should have been sufficient.
Sam finds Donna, and argues with her about her parenting skills. He thinks she’s pushing Sophie to get married too young. At least, I think that’s his point. It’s hard to tell because halfway through the argument, they break out into an ABBA song.
Even as the guests are heading to the church, Sam and Donna are still fighting. And let me take a moment to talk about this church. It’s on top of a fraking mountain. In order to get to it, the guests have to cross this little rocky isthmus, and then climb straight up a gods-damned mountain. I had to visit the cardiac care unit at New York-Presbyterian just to watch this scene. I can only imagine the death toll between camp 3 and the summit.
Donna’s nervous breakdown finally hits its climax. She has the choice to either: 1) confess that Sam broke her heart, that she still loves him, and that she has no more energy left to fight her emotions anymore; Or 2) sing “The Winner Takes It All”. Guess which way she goes with this.