- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

How do you like your kitsch?

With a heavy dollop of irony? Or straight-up, on the rocks?

If it’s the latter, you’ll love “Mamma Mia!”

If you’re a fan of the songs of Swedish pop group ABBA, you’ll love “Mamma Mia!” If you like watching grown men dance around in spandex, you’ll love “Mamma Mia!” If you feel warm and fuzzy watching middle-aged women get another shot at love, you’ll love “Mamma Mia!”

It’s pretty hard not to like this film adaptation of the hit stage musical. Oh sure, the singing, from a cast of Hollywood and London notables, is mixed and at times even pretty bad. (The crowd at the promotional screening I attended laughed just about every time Pierce Brosnan started to croon.)

The plot is ridiculous. (It’s about a girl trying to figure out which of three men is her father. Why doesn’t she just order one of those increasingly popular at-home DNA-testing kits?) It’s got men dancing around in spandex (but only at the very end).

Despite the myriad flaws, though, I found myself, like the rest of the audience, smiling and laughing for almost two hours. My foot never really stopped tapping. It’s because “Mamma Mia!” has something that makes up for a multitude of sins: the music of ABBA.

The Swedish foursome, active in the 1970s and early 1980s, recorded an almost unprecedented number of extremely catchy songs. Perhaps it’s the harmonies; perhaps it’s their danceability. They wrote songs about universal topics (money, jealousy, Napoleon, the late-night desperation of females) in such a simple yet clever way that they’re eminently easy to relate to. You could use them to tell a story, as the creators of this musical shrewdly realized.

So even though those songs are not always sung well in “Mamma Mia!” it’s OK. When we sing them alone at home - and who among us hasn’t? - we don’t sound so hot, either.

The girl at the center of the drama can sing. Amanda Seyfried is Sophie, whose wedding is imminent. She’s had a warm childhood, growing up on a Greek island in the care of her single mother Donna (Meryl Streep), but something’s missing. She wants her father to walk her down the aisle.

The problem is, she doesn’t know who her father is. Mom is mum, so Sophie steals her mom’s diary and discovers she had trysts with three men 20 summers ago: Sam the architect (Mr. Brosnan), Harry the banker (Colin Firth) and Bill the sailor (Stellan Skarsgard). Sophie invites all three men to her wedding and naively thinks she’ll know her father when she sees him. She doesn’t, of course.

Donna, meanwhile, has invited her two best friends to share the day. Tanya (Christine Baranski) is a rich multiple-divorcee, while Rosie (Julie Walters) is a down-to-earth cookbook author. Donna discovers the presence of the three men and, not knowing herself which one is the father of her child, freaks out - while singing ABBA.

The three older women may be the gutsiest on-screen this year, parading around in spandex singing the ultimate in kitsch, “Super Trouper.” (There’s a lot of spandex here.) Miss Streep sounds weak in the early songs but picks up momentum as the movie progresses. Miss Walters is the life of the party, while Miss Baranski is one hot cougar. The adorable Mr. Firth is the most successful of the male singers.

“Mamma Mia!” is happily cheesy. It’s impossible not to go along with the feeling when such a strangely life-affirming song as “Dancing Queen” is blasted in your ears. It’s not the most intelligent film of the summer, but it could be the most fun.

★★½

TITLE: “Mamma Mia!”

RATING: PG-13 (some sex-related comments)

CREDITS: Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Written by Catherine Johnson based on her stage musical.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

WEB SITE: www.mammamiamovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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