The Austin Chronicle

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Rated PG-13, 114 min. Directed by Ol Parker. Starring Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, Christine Baranski, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Cher.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 20, 2018

My my, how can I resist you? That lyric ran through my head more than once watching Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, an earworm of a movie liberally dusted with bronzer. Swimming against the tide, I was no great fan of the original stage musical, which was constructed around the beloved song canon of Sweden’s ABBA, or the 2008 movie adaptation. But this sequel written and directed by Ol Parker – operating well inside his comfort zone of cuddly affirmations and older people getting it done, as he did in the awfully likable Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pictures – has managed to shed some of the irritants of the first film (its unbearable squealiness, for one) while amplifying what made it so winning: a sporting cast, a penchant for sex-positive punchlines, and a sunny sincerity about its essential, endearing goofiness.

The story, credited to Parker and Richard Curtis and cobbled together from lyric cues, still feels like Mad Libs (I won’t spoil the terrific giggle that erupts when “Fernando” finally plays its hand). Lesser hits like “When I Kissed the Teacher” and “Angel Eyes” jumpstart plot points in a dual-timeline drama. In the present-day thread, Sophie (Seyfried) is planning a party to celebrate the renovation and reopening of the Grecian isle hotel her now-deceased mother Donna (Streep) once made her life’s work. In the other thread, set in 1979, we see young Donna (James) meeting, loving, and bedding three guys after her college graduation – basically, the origin story behind the first film’s central question of which one of them actually fathered Sophie.

That we already know the answer to Sophie’s parentage isn’t a problem. The sequel sweetly builds on the original’s whodunnit for an unforced, all-are-welcome portrait of family – genetic and chosen, present and powerfully missed. On the subject of the latter, Parker uses some of the less frenetic musical numbers to create a kind of conversation, via editing and location, between loved ones separated by distance: two lovers in different countries, a mother and daughter in different eras, the living and the dead.

Parker has cast credible young versions of all the original players, although in most cases vintage outperforms new grape. (As Donna’s bawdy, adult best friends, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are still this franchise’s most reliable comic performers.) Oh, but what a treat Lily James is. Convincingly bending herself to Streep’s American accent and mannerisms – she’s even got her cackle down – James goes way beyond mere parroting to be the best thing about the sequel. She’s 100% game with the goofy stuff; indeed, she and Hugh Skinner (playing the young version of Colin Firth’s Harry), working with Anthony Van Laast’s playful choreography, turn one of the silliest song-plot pairings, “Waterloo,” into a high point. But it’s her vulnerability that’s most striking. Amidst a sonic onslaught that sometimes sounds as basic as a karaoke backing track, her a cappella moments cut through the film’s bright shiny artifice. If this Hollywood thing doesn’t pan out, James should have no trouble launching a second career as a torch singer.

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