The grudge movie is a simple concept: you take a movie you wouldn’t want to watch in a million years and you go to watch it, grudgingly – because it’s something your partner wants to see. For millions of women across the world, this summer, the official grudge movie is Hellboy II. For millions of men, the grudge movie is Mamma Mia. Though these two movies have little in common at a surface level, they share a common bond of inducing terror in the opposite sex and – while not being good movies – they are also both hugely enjoyable (provided one isn’t compelled to watch them under duress).
Mamma Mia is based on a successful stage musical. This in itself would make most heterosexual men nervous. But Mamma Mia is also the infamous (in heterosexual male folklore) ABBA musical: that is, a musical based around the songs of ABBA, possibly the campest act in the history of pop. Add to this the fact that Mamma Mia is a wedding story and… It’s just not fair. We men are a hardy bunch, but surely an ABBA musical based around a wedding is a harsh punishment for leaving the toilet seat up and not having an opinion about swatches. Ok, so maybe we do want to drag the women in our lives to watch Hellboy II: The Golden Army… There’s no need to get nasty about it.
Meryl Streep stars as Donna, the ex-pat owner of a run-down hotel on a scenic Greek island. Donna’s beaming daughter, Sophie, is getting married – but alas, like Hellboy, she doesn’t know who her father is. Unbeknownst to Donna, Sophie has invited three of her possible fathers to the wedding, hoping Donna will identify which of them owes child support (only kidding). The three paternal hopefuls are: Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellen Skarsgård, or, as most women in the audience would have it: James Bond, Mr Darcy and Some Swedish Guy. Acting is not really at the forefront of Mamma Mia’s concerns for its cast, but they are all required to sing ABBA songs, and to dance around a bit.
Streep is on good form in Mamma Mia. She’s long ago stopped with the funny accents and the glacial hauteur which defined her through the 80s. The thaw which began in earnest with Adaptation and which acelerated through Angels in America (where Streep played a Rabbi) and A Prairie Home Companion has come full-melt with Mamma Mia. Streep laughs! She dances! She wears dungarees! She can even sing to boot, and she looks to be having a good time. It’s a performance you can only give if you’ve been a star, stopped being a star, come back, cherry picked the good roles and seen off the opposition. And Streep has always been a gal with a good sense of humour. It’s hard to forget how Roger Ebert once described her as the “merriest” of actresses. Here, her joy is infectious, even if you don’t like musicals. There’s abandon in her voice. Why not belt out The Winner Takes it All?
Pierce Brosnan is staggeringly awful as a singer, but you’ll forgive him. The former James Bond, former Remmington Steele (remember him?) has built up quite a hoard of good-will over the years, and cashing it in for ABBA isn’t the worst thing he could have done (this isn’t Brosnan’s Zardoz). Pierce has always had a way of seeming dignified, regardless of what a movie was doing around him. He’s driven an invisible car; so he can handle making an ass of himself. You know (and shame on you if you don’t know) that he and Meryl will get together by the end, but the two stars make something of this nonsense, even if it is something based on nostalgia (Bond and Karen Blixen, together at last).
Ok, so I wound up enjoying this grudge movie. The shame of it is; it’s a common admission on my part. Grudge movies have a way of disarming me (this may go for you too – watch yourself young man!) by simple virtue of subterranean expectations. Mamma Mia won me over in part because I just couldn’t hate it for an hour and forty eight minutes. Ok, and because the songs are catchy and because, if you’re British, you’re practically raised on ABBA songs (think of it as our Pledge of Allegiance, only made while drunk and dancing at a nightclub). For women, I don’t know that Hellboy II will ever have the same effect, but… for every grudge movie there must be an equal and opposite grudge match.