A Hollywood Candy Fare
Updated: Aug 6, 2018
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is a fanfare of chocolate and cake and a whole lot of cheese. There’s no doubting the appeal. At first bite it goes down gloriously, but if you keep chomping long enough and let it settle, it’s sure to give you a little indigestion. But then again, if you go all in for a gluttonous buffet you should know what’s coming out the other end (so to speak). It’s a movie that doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is. There is no frisson of plot, no inhalations of grandeur or twists of character. It has the most simple pitch in the history of cinema: “ABBA songs on Greek Islands… again.” And, boy, does it deliver.
In 1979 young Donna (Lily James taking on the gargantuan mantle of a young Meryl Streep) and her friends Tanya (Jessica Kennan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies) graduate from Oxford University, leaving Donna to embark on a European odyssey. On her journey she meets Harry (Hugh Skinner), Bill (Josh Dylan) and Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the muscle-bound, young versions of Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard that we meet in the original movie. After whirlwind trysts with all three, she falls for Sam, whom she discovers has a fiancée waiting back in England. Intercut with the present day, Donna has recently died and her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has renovated the hotel in preparation for a party that unites her mother’s friends and boyfriends in memory of her mother.
With all the names, parallel timelines and locations you’d be forgiven for thinking that narrative is high up on the list of priorities. A plot, you say? I’ll have not a word of it. This blue-skied, camera-winked, wackadoo pastiche of sun-kissed duets and yacht operas is more Greek island Bollywood than Hollywood provocateur.
Young Donna kicks off her story in the halls of Oxford University with “I kissed the teacher” in leg-kicking, crowd-conducting style. It sets the tone for a movie that exists more in the twilight zone fanfare of a 1970s groupie than any semblance of reality. Characters and scenes dance to the pre-ordained catalogue of music. When Harry and Donna find themselves in a restaurant in Paris with a Napoleon-inspired Maître-d’ or Sophie’s hotel manager weeps about the heartbreak of a long lost relationships, the audience is less concerned about the characters and more focused on recalling the recesses of their ABBA trivia for what song might tie the set-up together (“Waterloo” of course is the first and I won’t say the second for fear of ruining the most thigh-slapping moment in the movie).
Despite an obligatory script and character motivations that are as nuanced as a 1970s power ballad, the movie finds its charm in the carefree performances of the actors that know the game they have signed up for. This is not a probe into the human condition, people. This is entertainment. And everyone in front and behind the camera are all in it. Yet, it’s tough when a film is so self-effacing, because you don’t know what moments are genuinely tongue-in-cheek and what have simply fallen apart at the seams. It’s the difference between Blazing Saddles and The Room - and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again certainly has a little bit of both (I’m looking at you, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper, when it comes to the latter) and that’s where the indigestion comes in. There’s only so long an audience can gorge on a pastiche when they are in a restaurant that sells stories.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again is gluttony from the start. Donna tosses her graduation robe in favor of a jazzy, rainbow party piece like the movie discards story. It has the vibrant colors and the dazzle tones that set a room a light, but ultimately there’s only so long that can go on for before you are counting the minutes between the soundtrack. Perhaps it’s best summed up in the words of ABBA themselves: “knowing me, knowing you.” Well, if you’re on the same page there, then perhaps you can wink back at the picture, settle in for a party platter and gorge.