I made a pledge last week to compromise my movie going, and in a silly, humiliating way.
By Gerald Peary
I’m a latecomer to the Mama Mia! franchise, having abstained from the popular stage musical and walked on the other side of the street from the extraordinarily beloved 2008 movie. As someone pathologically allergic to upbeat mainstream films, I planned to give the newest Mama Mia! movie the widest berth. The June-August “summer movies” for me were the cynical, decadent entries in the Harvard Film Archives’ Luchino Visconti retrospective.
But if $2,000 was to be raised by me on Kickstarter, I made a pledge last week to compromise my movie going, and in a silly, humiliating way. I promised I would attend a public screening of Mama Mia! Here We Go Again wearing a silly Cher wig. The $2,000 was raised. Check the photo below of blonde me at Arlington’s Capitol Theater.
Can one saunter into Mama Mia! Here We Go Again cold, with no awareness of the labyrinth that is Mama Mia! and its characters? Not even knowing the lore of dynamo Donna (Meryl Streep) and her three loves, one of whom impregnated her?
I boned up by reading the intricate plot description of the first movie on Wikipedia. I learned of Donna’s collegiate Bandmates (Julie Waters, Christine Baranski), and of daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), about to marry Sky (Dominic Cooper). Sophie invites the three men who might be Sophie’s father (Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard, Colin Firth) to the wedding on the Greek island of Kolikairi. And she ends up deciding all three are her dad — how egalitarian! — and one of these daddies (Brosnan) rekindles his relationship with Donna, after all these years. And Sophie and Sky fly away, postponing their marriage for another day, another movie. With ABBA songs sprinkled everywhere.
Hmmm. This all sounded pretty trivial to me. But I’m a guy. I know my mother-in-law had seen both films and had a great time. And several women wrote my on Facebook page how entertaining and endearing the two films were. And an LGBTQ advocate professor friend of mine sent me a long e-mail, arguing that “there are genuinely good things about the film that critics are unwilling or unable to consider — such as the way the film’s musical numbers show how women relate to each other and struggle together … Of course that’s not respectable for people obsessed with narrative, but that’s also the way melodramas structure female subjectivity and female relations — through emotional texture, not plot. Then again, melodramas are not well respected.”
Well, my answer to my friend is that, yes, traditional women’s genres are unfairly denigrated. I champion certain classic Hollywood fare that stars Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman. I adore the ’50s melodramas (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, etc.) directed by Douglas Sirk. Max Ophuls’s “woman’s pictures,” Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Earrings of Madame De are two of my favorite films. But here’s what I have grown to realize: these works I love are downers every one, elegant studies of sinfulness and suffering, evidence of the wrecked world we inhabit, especially for the distaff side.
What attracts people to the Mama Mia universe is what, temperamentally agnostic, I can’t abide: all that in-your-face optimism and good will from everyone, not a villain in sight. A bland, fabricated, fairy-tale world for a blissed-out audience on that Greek island of one’s Hallmark dreams. For Sophie, a newborn baby, and a triptych of fathers who are all goo-goo over her, an Oedipal paradise. In Mama Mia! Here We Go Again’s extended final act: a guy for every man-crazy woman, both young and old.
Since all the characters are, by design, simple and one-dimensional, it’s impossible to distinguish the good actors from the bad. Nobody has much to do. It’s all thespian slumming, cashing a salary check while hanging out on a splendid locale on the Greek sea. I can say that the older male actors are pretty creaky. (The sight inspired me to head to the gym.) As for our waiting forever for the appearance of Cher, who is given the most delayed entrance since that of Moliere’s Tartuffe: I don’t get her aura as a show-biz icon. She was OK singing with Sonny and decent in some ’80s movies. But what’s the big deal?
And I certainly don’t buy my friend’s contention that “the film’s musical numbers show how women relate to each other and struggle together.” That’s giving gravitas to those hooky, frothy ABBA songs — “Dancing Queen,” the titular “Mama Mia!”, etc. which don’t pretend to be anything but charming and lightweight, joyous fun for a singalong while everyone is raising a beer.
Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.