Directed by Ol Parker. Starring Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan
Eventually we get to “Dancing Queen.” This is the part where I would make a joke about “contractual obligations” or something, but for all I know there are contractual obligations which mandate that “Dancing Queen” is played at least once in any ABBA movie. Anyway, there are a great many boats cruising to the island of Kalokairi, and just about all of them are stuffed with people doing the same choreographed dance. They get to shore; there’s more choreographed dancing. At this point all of the adults from the last movie excepting Meryl Streep are on the beach (unless you’ve got Dominic Cooper on the brain, and we’re T-minus 30 seconds on him), there’s a lot of hugging, and smiling, and it is irrefutable that you can hear “Dancing Queen.” It’s a really nice sequence. I mean, the choreography isn’t much to look at it, and it’s overwhelmingly being done by extras rather than people we have any kind of connection to, and sonically this is basically the Glee version of “Dancing Queen.” I don’t think I can call it a “good” sequence. But a “nice” sequence, absolutely.
What I find sort of tantalizing about Here We Go Again is the fact that it actually tiptoes around being a good movie, and it chooses not to be a particularly good movie based on a decision to, as far as I can tell, market it more effectively. The previous entry in the MMCU focuses on Donna (Meryl Streep) as she is forced to recalibrate her priorities when her daughter Sophie (Seyfried) figures out that her dad is one of three people. This entry makes Sophie the second fiddle again, although reopening the hotel her mother used to run is not quite as dramatic as her impending nuptials or confused paternity were last time out, and on the whole that’s okay. As long as she’s the second fiddle, these very practical problems of being a hotelier and coping with a failing marriage are good enough for Here We Go Again.
A little surprisingly, Donna is the main character again, albeit a Donna in 1979 played by Lily James. Recently graduated, on the lookout for a fulfilling, exciting life (which just sort of happens to land on a semi-remote Greek island), and irresistible to every man she runs into, Donna seems to ooze with possibility even if the movie is about filling in the story of how she became a single mom running a ramshackle bed and breakfast thirty years later. I dunno if we’re all ready for this conversation, but despite her absence from any superhero franchise, James might be a movie star in the way we define those in the 21st Century. In the past five years, she has played a key part in four movies (Cinderella, Baby Driver, Here We Go Again, Yesterday) which grossed something like $1.3 billion between them. I hear you. You’re saying, “Three of those four are IP movies, and close to half that figure is Disney.” You’re right, and I’ll add that the dumb Guernsey Potato Peel movie she made is one of the worst pictures I’ve ever written a review for. But aside from the pure money-making angle, which is not nothing, James glories all effulgent on the screen. That smile of hers is lethal within three rows, although compared to the vast majority of actresses with this kind of box office success behind her, I don’t think sex appeal is a particularly important to the star image she’s projecting. (Without knowing many details of Ben Wheatley’s upcoming Rebecca, if she plays Mrs. de Winter anything like Joan Fontaine did, that unversed physical attractiveness of the character would be right up James’ alley.) There’s zest to her best performances, innocence that blunts cynicism or skulduggery; it makes her a tremendous foil to Cate Blanchett’s quite brilliant Stepmother in Cinderella, and a perfect girl Friday for Baby in Baby Driver. Although Donna gets it on quite often, it doesn’t frequently seem to be her idea; the guys in this movie appear to be swept off their feet by this girl whose smile is only dwarfed by her hats, and the boys make the vast majority of the moves. I don’t think you could blame them.
I’d heard a not-insignificant amount of hype about this movie, and in the sections where Lily James is meeting and bedding young Harry (Hugh Skinner), young Sam (Jeremy Irvine), and young Bill (Josh Dylan)—the order given is the one in which she beds them, not the order in which she meets them—the hype is mostly justified. There’s the charm, obviously, and the chemistry as well. Watching Dylan operate with James was probably the most fun for me, although they do have the added advantage of “boat” and a really fine cover of “Why Did It Have to Be Me?” This is contrast to a key scene between James and Irvine in which they rescue a very wet horse, which, I’ll admit, spoke more to my sympathies for animals as opposed to my sympathies for two attractive people en route to hooking up. Alas for Skinner that he does not quite measure up despite a spiritedly dorky performance of “Waterloo.” There’s something very Muppet about his face and voice that makes him feel like a weird fit generally compared to the other three. The great advantage here, aside from James’ appearance, is James’ voice. She is very much competing with Seyfried and Christine Baranski for the title of “Best Singer in the MMCU,” as evidenced by renditions of “Andante, Andante,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” The dancing is sort of whatever; these movies know we’re here for the bouncy music, not the bouncy dancers, and I know that’s true every time I see Colin Firth jiggling his way around a beach. All the same, what a concept that a musical might be improved if the people in it were actually capable of singing. (“Angel Eyes,” which occurs in the Sophie timeline, gives Amanda Seyfried a lot to do, and there is a gorgeous cooing quality in her voice that they could definitely have gone back to more if they’d chosen.) Giving roughly the same number of songs to Lily James that were going to Meryl Streep, whose singing wasn’t even anything to write home about in Postcards from the Edge, is like giving at-bats to Tommy Pham or Joc Pederson instead of some quad-A player.
This leads us to what makes this movie fine instead of good: it runs away from Lily James! At a certain point, Donna gets pregnant and has Sophie, and while all this is happening, the focus goes back to Sophie, her hotel, her marriage, her relationship to her demanding grandmother (Cher, whose quirky sojourn here justifies a pretty solid album of ABBA covers which I have definitely listened to all the way through). There is, unforgivably, about as much Meryl Streep in her coveralls singing “My Love, My Life” as there is Lily James after a certain cutoff. It’s a decision which one makes when one has rather forgotten what the movie exists to do. Surely the ghost of Meryl Streep is much further down the list of reasons people came to see this movie than a chance to hear more ABBA being sung on a Greek island? And surely Lily James (or Amanda Seyfried, or even Cher) provide more avenues for that? Including Streep in here is the kind of choice you make when you think you’re making a movie about dynamic, meaningful characters as opposed to wringing every last krona from a concept, which is what I assumed was happening here. Here We Go Again crosses that stream, as it were, to character work, and that scene at Donny’s baptism is such a miscalculation.