Out of Tune
If there’s one thing that’s clear from this revue of ABBA’s hit songs, it’s that there really aren’t all that many great ABBA songs, hits or no. “Dancing Queen,” sure, and “Take a Chance on Me” are pretty catchy, I’ll grant, and maybe it’s just me and my appreciation of ABBA that is obviously even more limited than I thought it was, but it’s only during these two tunes — staged with much bouncy dancing about and enthusiastic but inadequate crooning by less than professional singers — when this forced, contrived film adaptation of the stage production sparks to genuine life. Maybe British theater director Phyllida Lloyd, making her feature debut here, feels the same way I do about ABBA. But then why would she take on a project like this in the first place?
For all I know, the stage version is forced and contrived, too — I haven’t seen it, but it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t be, what with the tepid tale that’s shoehorned around the songs, which mostly treads water getting from one earnestly mounted tune to the next. It seems that young Sophie (Amanda Seyfried: Alpha Dog, Nine Lives), on the eve of her wedding to young Sky (Dominic Cooper: Sense & Sensibility, The History Boys), has decided that now is the time to figure out who her father is: it seems it could be one of three former lovers of her mother’s, Donna (Meryl Streep: Lions for Lambs, Rendition). So she invites each of the men — Bill (Stellan Skarsgård: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Beowulf & Grendel), Sam (Pierce Brosnan: Married Life, Seraphim Falls), and Harry (Colin Firth: The Last Legion, Nanny McPhee) — to her wedding, to take place on the impossibly beautiful and remote Greek island where Donna and daughter have made a home. Family reunion and happiness, Sophie assumes, will ensue: mostly, in Catherine Johnson’s book/script, it’s wacky comedy of a brand that one had thought had gone out with Technicolor.
There’s something a little creepy about the prospect of a young woman comtemplating in such intimate detail her mother’s sex life — particularly when it transpires that Sophie has stolen the diary her mother kept of the summer when she was conceived, and oohs and ahhs over Donna’s descriptions of her romantic adventures. And later, when the men arrive on the island and enmesh themselves in the wedding preparations, there are moments when the movie seems to be debating with itself whether Sophie’s interactions with her potential fathers borders on the potentially incestuous.
Again, that could be just me. I know I’m old now, when I find myself identifying far more with Donna and her pals, Rosie (Julie Walters: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Becoming Jane) and Tanya (Christine Baranski: Welcome to Mooseport, Marci X), all of whom are spunky and spirited and wild and old enough to be my mother, and Donna’s men, who are charming and delicious, than I do with Sophie and Sky, who are young enough to be my children, and seem bland and unfinished to me. Which raises other issues of temporal significance, actually, in how Donna is nowhere near young enough to have been the carefree child we’re meant to believe she was when Sophie was carelessly conceived twenty years earlier, or how her men can possibly span every era from the flower power of the 60s to the New Wave punk of the 80s: it seems to suggest, in fact, that Sophie could well be anywhere from 20 to 40 years old. Which is patently absurd.
As always, none of the nonsensicalness would matter if the movie would let me get caught up in it, but that hardly happened, much as I wished it would: I appreciate the particular Swedishness of its casual attitude toward sex and love and single motherhood, and its embracing of the idea that women — you know, actual females over the age of 25 — are not only entitled to lives of their own but actually enjoy them. (And by that, I mean, that women of a certain age still like sex.) But the stagey phoniness of it all isn’t helped by the fact that only Streep is up to the musical task at hand — boy, can she sing! The youngsters are fine, of course, in that technically proficient but bloodless way of young singers, but the passion of the others — Walters, Baranski, Firth, Brosnan, and Skarsgård — gets lost in their struggles with the songs.
Whether it’s worth two hours out of your life to see Streep sing her heart out depends on how in love with Streep you are, or want to be.