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Mamma Mia! (PG-13) **½

Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Julie Walters lead the Greek chorus in the musical romantic comedy "Mamma Mia!." Photo: Universal Pictures.
Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep and Julie Walters lead the Greek chorus in the musical romantic comedy "Mamma Mia!." Photo: Universal Pictures.

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

Take the exclamation mark in the title of Mamma Mia! as a warning. In practically every scene of this glossy, saucy adaptation of the Broadway musical, the actors talk to each other at such a high pitch, you wonder if every line in the script ended like this! Or this!! Or this!!!

For its first 15 minutes — when Meryl Streep, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski run amok on a Greek island like the bulls at Pamplona, yelling and shrieking and jumping around as if they had just chugged a keg’s worth of Red Bull — Mamma Mia! is a torturous affair. Then the ABBA songs swoop in, giving the actors a place to invest all that hyper-manic energy, and Mamma Mia! becomes more tolerable.

At times, it is even something close to awesome. That is the paradox at the heart of the play and the movie, both of which were directed by Phyllida Lloyd and written by Catherine Johnson. As a story, Mamma Mia! is a sham, a narrative so rickety it makes Grease seem like Shakespeare. It fails as a musical, too, since only about half of the songs have any bearing on the scene that preceded them — and when they do, like Walters serenading a potential husband with Take a Chance On Me, the connection is as literal as a Sesame Street sing-a-long.

And yet: All these years later, ABBA’s sugary, infectious songs haven’t aged one bit — have there ever been more perfect examples of pop music? — which means you could throw them into a documentary about a doorknob factory and you’d still come up with a feel-good hit. And the movie has one gigantic advantage over the stage version: You get to see Streep doing ABBA.

I don’t expect to have a more surreal moment in the theater this year than I did while watching Streep go all Sophie’s Choice on The Winner Takes It All, which has some of the worst lyrics ever committed to song (”The gods may throw a dice / Their minds as cold as ice”) yet the actress sells it as if it were Chekhov. Every actor in Mamma Mia! has to sing and dance to some extent — even Pierce Brosnan, who pretends not to notice he sounds like a wounded raccoon — but none seems to be having as good of a time as Streep.

It helps that the actress has a lovely voice and is limber enough to perform cartwheels and pratfalls on cue. Streep has never been as fearless as she is in Mamma Mia!: She goes so far over the top, right from her first scenes, that she ends up in another galaxy before the movie’s over. But she helps make it a pleasant place to be.

That’s really all director Lloyd is after. Some of the musical numbers are chaotic, free-for-all sing-alongs loosely embracing some kind of theme (Dancing Queen, for example, becomes an anthem for female empowerment). Others are more carefully choreographed, in the style of the old Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello musicals, such as Christine Baranski’s amusingly sexy Does Your Mother Know?, sung to a beach’s worth of much younger male suitors.

The plot of Mamma Mia!, in which a bride-to-be (Amanda Seyfried) invites three of her mother’s former suitors to her wedding to discover which is her biological father, is a wretched, silly, flimsy excuse for a narrative. The story is simply a means to an end, and it is a testament to how well the filmmakers accomplish their goal to lift your spirits that as bad as it is, Mamma Mia! is also kind of wonderful. It’s a one-of-a-kind cinematic wreck: I couldn’t wait for it to end, and yet I’m strangely longing to see it again.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard, Colin Firth, Dominic Cooper

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

Screenwriter: Catherine Johnson

Producers: Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman

A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 98 minutes. Mild vulgar language, sexual situations. Playing at area theaters.