So let me get this straight. You want to make a sequel to a very popular movie (based on an even more popular musical) whose best asset was Meryl Streep, a very famous actor, who after decades of intergalactic acclaim, was unveiled, at last, as a major movie star. And you’re going to make that film — “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” — with every other member of the movie’s original cast, except for her but including poor Pierce Brosnan, whose singing, as a lovelorn widower, remains a dare to file a noise complaint.
And you’re going to keep the musical’s Abba-centric conceit — only you used up all the great Abba songs the first time. So now you’ve got to lean on second- and third-tier stuff like “My Love, My Life,” “I’ve Been Waiting for You” and “Kisses of Fire.” And because you suspect some of us might, not unreasonably, prefer numbers set to “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo,” and because you’re running embarrassingly low on credible options, you recycle those songs, but with as little movie-musical imagination as you can get away with.
Now you don’t have Ms. Streep as Donna, the American proprietress of a Greek villa, and so because of scheduling, money, perhaps Ms. Streep’s dignity, you’ve killed Donna off. But you still need an element that lends the proceedings a whiff of showbiz. So you import the opposite of Meryl Streep. You import someone with one screen self (and one name!) as opposed to dozens, someone with buoyancy, immortality and a welcome sense of campiness, someone who can sing. You bring in Cher. But you don’t bring her aboard to play Donna’s sister, childhood bestie, long-lost lover or even rival Mediterranean hotelier. You hire Cher (who’s 72 to Ms. Streep’s 69) to play — oh, I can’t. Do I have to?
You hire Cher to play …
It takes about 90 minutes to get here. Because, in part, the movie, which Ol Parker wrote and directed, has to thumb-twiddle with a plot involving the grand reopening of Donna’s villa by her daughter, Sophie, who’s still played with a damsel’s distress by Amanda Seyfried. Oh, the stress. Will any of her three fathers — Stellan Skarsgard, Colin Firth and Mr. Brosnan — show up? Will her boyfriend, Sky (Dominic Cooper), or her mother’s best friends (Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, lascivious as ever)? And what about that catastrophic storm from the first movie? Yes, yes, yes, and yes — but it’s a pitiful cinematic event, especially compared with Hurricane Cher.
When she does arrive, it’s almost ominously — by chopper, the way, in “Zero Dark Thirty,” the SEALs sneak up on Osama bin Laden, or how, on “Game of Thrones,” a dragon might invade Westeros. She’s Ruby, some kind of Vegas-encrusted entertainment legend who arrives in a bleach-blond wig and an outfit made with the pelts of a dozen disco balls. Meryl Streep’s mother? LOL. Lady Gaga’s younger sister? Bingo.
I know. It’s weird to fixate on a person who shows up with only 20 minutes to go. But believe me, it’s no hardship abandoning all the flashbacks to the tail end of the 1970s and the opening bits of the 1980s, when an obnoxiously blissed out 20-something Donna, who’s played by Lily James, sleeps her way around southern France and Greece, and does so immaculately, it must be said.
These are monotonous interludes meant to expand on and explain the legend of Donna — how she turned her university valediction into “When I Kissed the Teacher,” a number that not even the Muppets would endorse; how she wound up pregnant with a daughter of uncertain paternity; how she turned a bunch of dust and debris into the sort of seaside splendor you find only in a Nancy Meyers movie. It’s cruel to put an actor in the cross hairs of Streepists. So Ms. James deserves some credit for agreeing to make herself a target. And even though she did nothing for me (she’s ruthlessly plucky with young Donna’s platitudes), I’ll admit to admiring her choice to not even bother “doing” Meryl Streep. She seems a lot likelier to wind up as Dyan Cannon, a star of eventually spiked loveliness who is to Ms. Streep what a Lakers hat is to Carmen Miranda’s.
In the first movie, Ms. Streep luxuriated in a mode other than technical virtuosity. The director Phyllida Lloyd launched her upward toward the camera as a nifty metaphor for stardom. Now she’s haunting the new movie courtesy of what looks like an unflatteringly framed publicity still from the previous one. It’d be unhappier if it weren’t also passive-aggressive. The movie won’t let us miss her!
Her incandescence was an asset. It both attracted and blinded you to what, ultimately, was a movie about the pernicious allure of cultural imperialism. (You mean, a Greek enclave full of Brits, Americans and Mr. Skarsgard singing hits by Swedes couldn’t find even one vaguely Hellenic arrangement?)
Ms. Streep’s near total absence leaves a hole Cher is expected to fill. It’s too little, way too late, of course, and because it’s Cher, it’s also too much. The movie doesn’t know what to do with her, anyway. For one thing, the camera maintains a mysterious, disturbing distance. Her appearance does weakly justify all the Latin-lover hot air that Andy Garcia has to blow as Sophie’s glorified help. (His face is safely hidden behind a thicket of gray bearding.) But she’s so natural (and spectral) here that you don’t know why they didn’t just build a different movie around her and her decades of hits. Although, she’s no dummy. Her own collection of Abba covers is coming, and, as I write this, “The Cher Show” hurtles toward Broadway. So maybe her work here is best appreciated as a pop-up ad.
Mr. Parker does give the movie these flashes of old, literal-minded Hollywood staging, like when young Donna’s virginal suitor (Hugh Skinner) shoots “Waterloo” all over a French restaurant. But most of the movie’s 18 numbers just kind of sit there. You don’t feel much. So even when you get a goodie like “Dancing Queen,” wherein a lot of tan and actual brown people gyrate in unison on landward boats, you can simultaneously admire a perfect pop song and spare a thought for the real boat-bound migrants who’ve perished in waters just like these.
Most of the musical sequences are creaky, but not that far from some of what Damien Chazelle was going for with the singing and dancing in “La La Land”: passionate amateurism. But that’s some of what made the first movie such a kick. Nobody was Barbra Streisand. None of the songs were Stephen Sondheim’s. You were watching very good actors do karaoke in an Anglo-Nordic telenovela. Now you’re watching them do it in a sequel, which means you’re also watching something more inscrutably sad: karaoke of karaoke.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
Rated PG-13. “Singing,” “dancing,” “sex” and Christine Baranski. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes.