Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"Mamma Mia!" is Appalling, Cliched, and Hateful

ABBA is a Swedish pop band consisting of four members, two of whom were songwriters who knew about fifty words of English between them. They used those fifty words to compose lyrics to accompany ridiculously catchy tunes during the 1970s, creating a string of popular songs. There's something admirable about this, even if the music is pure kitsch- the aural equivalent of a black velvet painting of a clown laughing. It's tolerable in small doses; say one or two songs a year. The musical "Mamma Mia!," which incorporates these songs into a sitcommy story as subtle as you'd expect from something with an exclamation point in the title, bludgeons all of the admirable qualities of the music until you find yourself wanting to kick Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson each in the shin.

The story is like a middle aged woman's pornographic fantasy, but with any possible sex appeal drip-dried away. About twenty years before the start of the story a woman has slept with three preposterously fantastic and successful men- an architect, a banker, and a writer!- any one of whom might have fathered her daughter. The daughter, who is now 20 and about to be married, has invited all three of these men to her wedding on some fabulous and fictional Greek island. Everyone is rich and worry-free and happy to just go hang out for a few days in Greece. Must be nice. There are plenty of complications, the likes of which might have made for an above-average episode of "Three's Company," but are strained and painful at this length (the daughter, who's invited the three possibles without her mother's knowledge, asks them to hide from the mother; the mother is trying to stay ahead of creditors). The daughter calls off her wedding, because she's just not ready yet. She'd rather just take a trip around the world with her fiance! Again, that must be nice. But that's not all: the mother gets a marriage proposal from one of the three possibles- the architect! It's all so glamorous, even to the point of one of the possibles- the banker- turning out to be gay! (Really, having a gay character in a musical full of ABBA songs is a bit too "on the nose," don't you think?) And as for the question of who's the real biological father- that's left unanswered! It just doesn't matter, you see, because each of the three possibles wants to be "one-third" father to the irritating girl (which is actually kind of insulting, when you think about it- none of them wants full responsibility for her)! What mother and daughter could ask for more?!

Sorry, I suppose I should have put the words "Spoiler Alert" somewhere in the previous paragraph, but it's just not possible to spoil something that's already rotten to the core. Exclamation point.

Watching "Mamma Mia!" is like being trapped in a car on an interminable road trip with a group of very annoying and tragic people who know every ABBA song forwards and backwards, and insist on singing those songs over and over, no matter how heavily you sigh, how obviously you roll your eyes, or how determinedly you shout at them, "STOP SINGING THOSE DAMNED SONGS!" Actually, your resistance only makes their singing more loud and shrill, because really all they want to do is E*N*T*E*R*T*A*I*N you! So why are you being so negative about it?

I don't think I have the vocabulary to properly express just how loathsome and hateful this is. It's pandering at the most cynical and blatant; cliched, unsurprising and boring, making its success as a stage show all the more dispiriting. I'm sure the movie will do just as well, which is more than it deserves. You'd be better off getting a copy of ABBA's "Gold" CD (preferably used) and listening to one song every six months or so.

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