Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! is a lot like the cosmo I inevitably had to buy before the film in order to get in the right mindset. The first sip is way too sweet, as if it is overcompensating for something. Then the aftertaste of the alcohol hits, and you begin to feel doubts and remorse for this decision. But then, just as you begin to regret drinking it, you reach a state of serenity, balanced by the citrusy joy and the boozed-up ridiculousness, and you can finally enjoy the experience as a whole. Mamma Mia is a lot like that experience, a roller coaster of ridiculousness and frustrations before you finally want to stand up and dance.
It’s been five years since the events of Sophie Sheridan’s (Amanda Seyfried) wedding. Her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep) has passed away, leaving the hotel to her. In order to relate to the woman who raised her, and to cope with a strain in her relationship with husband Sky (Dominic Cooper). The grand reopening is rife with complications, but with the help of her mother’s best friends, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), as well as her three dads, Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), Harry (Colin Firth), and Sam (Pierce Brosnan), she may manage to give her mother the send-off she deserves. Meanwhile, the film also flashes back to tell the story of young Donna (Lily James) and her journey to the island she called home, as well as her relationships with each of Sophie’s potential fathers (Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, and Jeremy Irvine).
Allow me to get something off my chest: I like the original Mamma Mia! Actually, that’s not quite accurate; I love Mamma Mia! It is one of the most ridiculously over-the-top films I have ever seen, and it is almost impossible to tell which bad decisions are intentional and which are just bad filmmaking, but I cherish it like one of my children. It is my guiltiest of guilty pleasures, the film I know isn’t good, but I will defend it to my dying day (as opposed to a movie that is bad but I enjoy for that reason). I love that outlandish, gaudy showboat of a feature. But that ludicrousness is the biggest thing working against Here We Go Again – it takes forever to embrace the stupidity of its production. Oh, don’t get me wrong; the film is ridiculous. There is a sequence set to “Name of the Game” about young love that literally features the main character unironically doing cartwheels and pratfalling throughout a field. However, for the first forty-five minutes, the film refuses to give anything the audience to gnaw on. The songs they choose to pack the first act with are some of ABBA’s slowest, most uninteresting “hits” available. At best, they sort of work (“When I Kissed The Teacher”), and at worst, they’re…well, they’re “One Of Us” or “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” Now, all of this isn’t unforgivable, it just means the music won’t be able to do the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, unlike the previous film, there isn’t a plot in sight. None. And if you thought the first film was just an excuse to string together a bunch of 1970s pop hits, hoo boy do you need to see this one. It’s essentially a hodgepodge of unrelated, uninteresting cast-off jokes from Love Actually stuck together by a hot Greek sun – which I guess makes sense, as Richard Curtis helped write and produce the film. It’s the type of film where the women talk about their love for carbs and cake, where arms are flapped around to represent whimsy, and where people falling into a lake is the high point of physical comedy. And yet, somehow it all feels less ridiculous than the original. Some of you may take that as a compliment, but if, like most of the audience for this film (including me), you were hoping for something more campy, then honey, a good deal of this movie is a letdown.
However, while the film definitely skimmed on the kitsch of the original, it certainly made up for it in the production value. Honestly, I don’t know a better decision the producers could have made than bringing on board Ol Parker to direct (actually, I do, but I’ll talk about her in a moment). Parker has a much stronger idea of what this material should be, even though he has significantly less to work with. He boils down the karaoke, night-on-the-town vibe of the original musical numbers and combines it with a showman’s eye, meaning the audience will both feel the urge to sing along and laugh as well as revel in the sheer staging of these numbers. Each song feels like a huge step up, from vocal performance to craftsmanship, over whatever the hell this was supposed to be. And because of this attention for detail, when the songs work in Here We Go Again, holy sh*t do they work. Songs like “Waterloo” and “Andante, Andante,” which shouldn’t be that enjoyable, end up sucking the audience right into the action. Songs like “Super Trouper” and “Angel Eyes” end up working far better than they have any right to. And when the film finally gets around to allowing the stars to perform “Mamma Mia” and “Dancing Queen,” it feels like a legitimate triumph. Both numbers gave me chills watching them unfold, and whether that was the original music, the alcohol, or the general vibe of day-drunk women I saw it with, I still commend them for accomplishing this feat. And perhaps most important of all, those actors with less-than-stellar voices aren’t forced to undergo full-fledged solos this time around, instead singing slight refrains inside their wheelhouse and providing backup to the bigger stars. This is smart, because it allows the actors to get in on the fun while not forcing them to…ahem…send out an SOS.
However, while the staging of the musical numbers is important, the most important moment of the film is most likely the final forty-five minutes, for no other reason than it remembers that this movie is supposed to be dumb, silly fun. It takes forever for the film to find that footing, but once it does, my, my, it is hard to resist. It allows Tanya to drool over men with such indelible lines like “Be still, my beating vagina,” or “Have him cleaned and brought to my tent.” It allows its stars to have fun with each other through silly choreography and Friday night choreography. And when Cher enters the film for no other reason than She’s F*cking Cher And She Can Do What She Wants, she turns the film into a form of Gay Carnivále. I don’t mean this as a slur or an insult; I just don’t know how else to describe a movie where an icon like Cher sings ABBA’s “Fernando” while fireworks go off and she is surrounded by handsome, harry men in unbuttoned shirts and boat shoes. That scene is for a very specific form of audience, and I’m glad that fetish can be appreciated. And even when the film does take a serious turn near the end, it never forgets what it is supposed to be at its core: a film about mothers. Yes, even Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! can have a sweet message for the mothers and daughters inevitably seeing this in theaters (preferably with rosé in hand). It’s a film that knows you can have an important core message about making our mom proud and the love of a mother for a daughter, all wrapped up in a treacly, sappy, gaudy package. It doesn’t always work, but I truly love when it does.
As for the actors, as mentioned above, they all seem to be having the time of their lives. Seyfried technically serves as the main character of the piece, insofar as there is one, and she does the job serviceably. She nails her big songs, she hits her emotional moments to a T (I’m beginning to think her aesthetic is “My parental figure is dying in this church let me look at them with my big green eyes”), and above all, she remembers that the point is to have fun. However, if there’s a star of this movie, it is Lily James. I am in awe of what James does with a role played by Meryl Streep. She makes it her own, adds some twists, provides a stellar singing voice, and ultimately outdoes the original. It’s a star-making turn. The same way that Robert de Niro portrays the younger version of an iconic deceased patriarch in The Godfather: Part II and arguably did a better job, so too does James take over for the deceased matriarch and completely control the film. She is stunning, flirty, funny, sexy, independent, and awesome, all at the same time – exactly what Young Donna would need to be. This girl is going to have an Oscar someday, mark my words. As for the rest of the cast, each of the fathers is exactly as charming as you remember, be they Brosnan or Skarsgård or Firth. As for their younger variations, I’m still not entirely convinced that they aren’t just one guy playing three different roles Meg Ryan-in-Joe Versus the Volcano-style (you never see them in the same place), but assuming the producers are telling the truth, then I guess Irvine, Skinner, and Dylan all do a serviceable job (their songs are fine, but let’s face it, no one really cares that much about the young dads). Walters and Baranski are still mostly just comic relief, but whereas Walters got the biggest laughs and attention in the first film, this time Baranski gets a chance to shine, getting most of the best lines and major musical moments (and why shouldn’t she? She’s a goddess). And speaking of Baranski, I want to give a shout-out to Heathers star Jessica Keenan Wynn as Young Tanya. While Alexa Davies makes for a perfectly decent Young Rosie, Wynn relishes in playing the younger Christine Baranski. She nails each vocal tic, each body movement, and crucially channels the icon’s entire being. I love her, and I would absolutely see a Mamma Mia 3 if it were solely focused on James, Wynn, and Davies. Andy García shows up briefly to great effect, and there is a great appearance by actress Maria Vacratsis as a kindly bar owner, but let’s face it: if none of the former names wooed you about this film, you’re clearly only here for Cher. Yes, Cher is in this movie. Yes, she is technically playing a role (specifically as Streep’s mother). No, Cher is not acting here. And yes, she is wonderful. She shows up, sings a song, and utters lines like, “Holding a grudge makes you fat, dear.” I mean, I don’t know what else you want in a movie. That really should be all you need to know.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! is a whole mess of contradictions. It’s sloppy and fun, terrible and wonderful, melancholy and giddy all at the same time. It lacks the panache of the original, and it never feels as batsh*t crazy, but the craziness it does have, it channels better. It’s great fun, the perfect Sunday morning brunch background, filled with funny performances and mimosa musical numbers. I’m not going to pretend this is a great film, or even a good one, but I will say that if this is the type of film you enjoy, you won’t be disappointed.