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Ridiculous charm

Even those of us who habitually favour serious, austere, aesthetically correct drinks — single-malt Scotch, green tea, pomegranate juice, whatever — may occasionally indulge in a frivolous cocktail bedecked with fruit and umbrellas and served in a bulbous, sugar-rimmed glass. The next morning’s headache seems a small price to pay for the rush of cheap liquor and uninhibited conviviality. As long as you don’t operate heavy machinery or wake up in the wrong bed, or operate heavy machinery in the wrong bed, what’s the harm?

All of which is to say: Don’t be afraid of Mamma Mia! (That exclamation point, by the way, is part of the title, and it’s by far the most understated thing about the movie.) You can have a perfectly nice time watching this spirited adaptation of the popular stage musical and, once the hangover wears off, acknowledge just how bad it is.

Actually you don’t have much choice on either front. If you insist on folding your arms, looking at your watch and defending yourself against this mindless, hedonistic assault on coherence, you are unlikely to survive until the end credits (which may, by themselves, kill you all over again). Surrender, on the other hand, is easy and painless. It’s Greece! It’s bellybuttons! It’s Meryl Streep! It’s Abba!

See that girl! Watch that scene! If you change your mind, I’m the first in line. Mamma Mia, here I go again. Like me, you may have spent the last 30 years struggling to get lines like those out of your head — and wondering what they were doing there in the first place — but you might as well have been trying to compost Styrofoam. Those shimmery, layered arrangements, those lyrics in a language uncannily like English, those symmetrical Nordic voices — they all add up to something alarmingly permanent, a marshmallow monument on the cultural landscape. When our species dies out, leaving the planet to roaches and robots, the insects will beat their little wings to the tune of Waterloo as Wall-E and Eve warble along.

And the darn thing still won’t make any sense. Nor does Mamma Mia!, but that’s hardly a criticism. The story (by Catherine Johnson) is more or less an early Shakespeare comedy reimagined as an episode of Hannah Montana. The ingenue, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is about to be married on the sun-drenched Greek island where she lives with her mother, Donna (Ms Streep). Sophie is the just-ripe fruit of a summer fling, with the complicating factor that Donna had three flings during the summer in question, and Sophie doesn’t know whether her dad is Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) or Harry (Colin Firth). But even though she knows them only as names in an old diary, she manages to track them down and invite all three to her wedding. Lo and behold, they all show up, as do Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), old pals of Donna’s from the crazy days of her rock ’’ roll youth.

Just when, exactly, those crazy days were is a bit vague. A song lyric refers to the “time of the Flower Power.” (Surely you remember the Flower Power!) But Sophie sure doesn’t look 40. At one point, Harry recalls the Johnny Rotten T-shirt he had back when he knew Donna, which is 10 years closer to the mark but still about 10 years off. Never mind. Abba is timeless: “The history book up on my shelf/ is always repeating itself.”

The real problem is that the director of Mamma Mia!, Phyllida Lloyd, seems to have taken the unapologetic silliness of the project (which she directed onstage) as permission to be sloppy. Abba made some of the most highly polished, tightly engineered pop junk ever. There is a kind of perfection in some of those hits that is undeniable even if — or maybe especially if — you can’t stand to hear them. But in matters of craft and technique Mamma Mia! proves to be remarkably shoddy, a tangle of clumsy cuts, mismatched shots, bad lighting, egregious overdubbing and scenes in which characters appear to have been haphazardly Photoshopped into the scenery.

It is safe to say that Ms Streep gives the worst performance of her career — safe to say because it is so clearly what she intends, and she is not an actress capable of failure. There is a degree of fascination in watching an Oscar-winning Yale School of Drama graduate mug and squirm, shimmy and shriek and generally fill every moment with antic, purposeless energy, as if she were hogging the spotlight in an eighth-grade musical.

She is saved, and also upstaged, by Ms Walters and, especially, by Ms Baranski, whose cougar-on-the-prowl rendition of Does Your Mother Know is the one genuinely, show-stoppingly sexy sequence in a film that more often flails between forced cheekiness and unearned sentiment.

I know: I promised you a good time, and I’m describing a train wreck. But it’s hard not to share the evident delight of most of the performers. Ms Streep overdoes it, yes, but you can’t accuse her of condescending to the material any more than you can fault her for taking it too seriously.

The impression left by the old pros who make up most of the cast is that they have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to prove, and that worrying about dignity is for newbies and amateurs. So Mr Brosnan bellows his way through a couple of duets, Mr Skarsgard displays his tattooed buttocks, and Mr Firth consents to appear in a spiked dog collar.

Ms Seyfried has a harder time, though not for any lack of effort or talent. She has to work while the old timers are having fun, and to carry the picture’s unconvincing, flat-footed attempts at melodrama. Ms Seyfried’s eyes are as blue as the Aegean and almost as wide, and her natural

vivacity makes her performance seem almost authentic, but she’s not in a position to let go of her vanity and clown around.

It’s one thing to ham it up in a zany, messy musical if you’re the actual Meryl Streep. If you have the desire (or the potential) to be the next Meryl Streep, the stakes are higher and the risks more pronounced.

But Ms Seyfried, who has proven her skill on Big Love and elsewhere, is likely to emerge from Mamma Mia! unscathed. Really, this movie is incapable of harming anyone, except moviegoers with the good taste and bad manners to resist its relentless, ridiculous charm.

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