May 22, 2013
Written by Mark Schumann, Father of Three
Thursday, 31 July 2008 13:22
Every film — like every meal — offers some degree of “nutritional value” to the people who partake. Like some meals, some movies dare to deliver more than a conventional helping. Each week, “the reel dad” offers the “nutritional value” of a film that parents may consider sharing with their kids. This week, he takes a look at the new musical, Mamma Mia!
I confess that I would probably pay the admission to the movies to watch Meryl Streep read the Yellow Pages. She is, without question, the finest actress working today; a presence so mesmerizing, a talent so deep, that she can make anything feel real and any movie worth experiencing.
Since making her debut in Julia in 1977, Streep has mastered any number of accents on film, as well as played the violin, shot the rapids and run a farm in Africa. Until now, however, she has never made a movie musical, although she almost starred in Evita many years ago. The film version of Mamma Mia! offers this finest of actresses the chance to simply have a good time. Who else, beyond age 50, would have the courage to sing and dance and be silly on screen for the first time? And while the movie itself is cinema junk food, the marvelous Meryl makes it feel nutritious. She, alone, is reason enough for anyone to start dancing in the aisles.
On Broadway, Mamma Mia! is an enduring hit thanks to the popularity of its songs by Abba. The ever-so-slight plot — borrowed from a 1968 film Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell — sketches the tale of a young girl, on the eve of her wedding, who invites three men who could be her father to the celebration. When the bride’s mother sees the men for the first time in years, she comes alive with a spirit of vitality and youth. The prospect of reuniting with a successful architect, a rich banker or a worldly traveler must sound good to a woman struggling to run a small hotel on a Greek island.
The story, on stage, was never more than a framework for the Abba songbook with musical numbers coming from nowhere with no particular link to character or situation. That suspended reality usually has an easier time on stage than on film. A movie must create its artificial world in a real way, through character and situation, because settings are actual places. That pressures the performers to nail their characterizations in a few minutes on screen so the audience can sit back and enjoy.
On screen, Mamma Mia! actually makes the most of its thin plot and familiar songs. First-time director Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed the stage version) effectively “opens up” the proceedings and perfectly captures the beauty of the setting. She fills the musical numbers with a toe-tapping energy that many movie musicals find difficult to sustain. And she gives a lot of freedom to her stellar cast who radiate the joy that shooting the film must have provided.
Streep is a delight. She is such a convincing singer, and winning personality, that it’s easy to start a list of the great musical comedy roles she could play. While the plot and character call for little more than exuberance and good humor, the actress within makes certain the character is clearly developed. The delightful Christine Baranski finally gets a movie role that puts her in the spotlight; Julie Walters, as always, captures our hearts; Colin Firth registers another well-timed performance; and while Pierce Brosnan struggles a bit with his musical numbers, he is such a good sport that the vocals don’t matter and, at least, the producers didn’t cast Richard Gere.
Yes, I would buy a ticket to watch Streep sing the telephone book, and fortunately, thanks to Mamma Mia!, I don’t have to. I can sit, enjoy, tap my toes and, when I get home, search the video shelves for all the other classic Streep performances. The lady can do anything. Even a musical.
Note to Parents: Mamma Mia! is great movie fun for many ages. While some sequences are, perhaps, a bit suggestive, especially Christine Baranski’s show-stopping musical number, it’s all framed in enough innocence that no one should be offended. Of course, the fact that a woman can’t explain her daughter’s lineage may confuse some but, in this film, the plot details are merely transitions between the Abba songs. So just enjoy the music and the delightful performances.
Content: Medium. This movie meal doesn’t offer a great deal of nutritional value. But, now and then, we all need junk food.
Entertainment: High. And this cinema candy is so much fun that your toe will start tapping.
Message: Medium. This is not a message picture outside of, perhaps, a most endearing message that it’s never too late to sing and dance.
Relevance: High. Marvelous musicals are always entertaining.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Meaningful cinema-generated chats don’t always have to focus on serious issues. Use this as an opportunity to share reactions to people having a marvelous time on screen and in the theater. Enjoy.
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