A big fat Greek wedding is in the offing, with guests arriving by the boatload on an island in the Aegean. Love is in the air, as is the music of ABBA. It's not on the radio, but it's on the tip of everyone's tongue. Among the cantors is Meryl Streep, who plays Donna, a super-trouper single mom who has met her Waterloo and is sending up an S.O.S.
What Donna doesn't know just yet is that her bride-to-be daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has sneaked peeks at a 20-year-old diary. Having done a little math, Sophie sends wedding invitations to three mentioned men in three different cities, on the theory that one of them pretty much has to be her father. They all show up, of course, and Donna is less than thrilled.
As you're probably gathering, this plot is not being taken terribly seriously. It's mostly a pretext for songs that are mostly a pretext for acting silly.
The folks directing, scripting and producing Mamma Mia! are the same ones who did the show on Broadway. They are not movie people, and it shows at times: The performers have been encouraged to overdo, play to the back row, and belt songs into each other's faces in ways that are more suited to Broadway than to widescreen close-ups. But then, subtlety isn't really what this musical is about.
The women sing more comfortably than the men: Pierce Brosnan looks like he's in pain during his vocals, but Streep can really belt. Most of them, though, are obviously not trained musical performers, which means there's a lot of extra pushing and gesticulating. Sometimes — though not always — that's on purpose. If you're going to take an ABBA song and turn it into a one-scene Greek tragedy, for instance, you have to build emotion pretty quickly. On the way to the wedding, Donna conversationally tells off an ex-love, and 23 seconds later, we're in grand opera territory.
This would all be more persuasive if you'd felt any real chemistry between Streep and Brosnan. But how could you? They've been singing ABBA songs at each other for two hours. None of this will matter to the 30 million or so baby boomers who made Mamma Mia! a stage hit.
Make no mistake: Brides and grooms notwithstanding, it is the film's older folks who are central. They carouse and act like kids, while their children are so conventional and responsible that they're kind of a snooze. It's the boomers' revenge: a second childhood, complete with an end-credits curtain call in goofy outfits.