Jessica Simpson Avoids Tabloid Set-Up | 'Mamma Mia': ABBA Dabba Don’t | Waiting for 2008 Oscar Nominees | Delta Dawns; Ritchie's Riches

Jessica Simpson Avoids Tabloid Set-Up

Jessica Simpson — you may remember that apart from whom she’s dating, her reality show and a recent anointing by a tabloid for Best Breasts — is a singer. The problem was, her powerful voice got lost in all the noise.

On Wednesday, I got to hear five tracks from her upcoming country album. I’m happy to report that Jessica has found her groove and a context for her pop vocalizing. Her adventure in Nashville sounds like a success. Get ready to see her move into the niche once occupied by Olivia Newton-John.

The album, due in September, is called "Do You Know," which is also the name of a song she co-wrote with Dolly Parton. Dolly’s on that track, as well. Right now, Jessica’s got a hit single on country radio called "Come On Over," which could cross over once the video debuts on her Web site in a few days.

But Simpson still has her share of problems with the tabloids. Dating football star Tony Romo hasn’t been easy (after her infamous marriage to pop star Nick Lachey). Case in point: Recently, an Us Weekly reporter actually wrote a letter to Romo’s father to see if she could ignite a war between the Simpsons and the Romos. I’ve seen the letter. It’s a hoot.

The reporter, whose name I will leave out of this, wrote to Mr. Romo: "I think it’s important for you to be aware — and maybe you already are — of how much Jessica Simpson’s side is controlling the media right now. … I think it’s important for the public to hear the other side of the truth, and undoubtedly there’s nobody who can provide that information better than you, Tony’s father. Us Weekly would be honored to provide an outlet for you to share your account of the situation. We could speak on or off the record — it’s completely up to you."

Account of what situation? That was my first question. That they’re dating? "Other side of the truth?" Is this really how the tabs operate? What truth? Again, that they’re dating?

Luckily, Mr. Romo didn’t take the bait. Jessica is still dating Tony. But the Us Weekly letter could make for a great country song.

Mamma Mia: ABBA Dabba Don’t

It’s hard to imagine a movie as poorly made as "Mamma Mia!" coming off the Hollywood assembly line with Meryl Streep as its star. Based on the Broadway musical, "Mamma Mia!" — which opens next week — is one of the great colossal messes that film insiders will be talking about for a long time to come.

As you may know, "Mamma Mia!" is a jerry-rigged story to support the songs of Swedish pop group ABBA. As a kid who was in high school when ABBA first appeared, I am still shocked that anyone thinks this innocuous, bouncy, fluffy pop is anything more than a cheerful greeting card.

When the group's first single, "Waterloo," hit the charts, it was the same time as Paul McCartney's "Band on the Run," Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions" and Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Who would have thought ABBA would be the one to get so much attention three decades later?

Admittedly, some of the songs are catchy. And the Broadway show is still running. But this movie is about as dreadfully constructed as one could imagine. Cheesy is just about the best thing you can say, and from there it’s all downhill.

Consider that the film was shot all over magnificent Greece but has no depth of field, zero cinematography and lighting worthy of the kind of entertainment Peter Cook would rather watch at home on his computer.

Indeed, often the "blue screen" is so bad — of people standing in front of a fake ocean — that you kind of get nostalgic for "The Love Boat."

Here’s the story in a nutshell: Streep is an American named Donna who runs a small hotel on (I guess) Corfu. Her 20-year-old daughter, played by Amanda Seyfried, invites three men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard) who could be her father to her wedding to a Brit with a spray-on tan played by Dominic Cooper. Donna/Streep invites her two best friends who also used to be her back-up singers (Christine Baranski, Julie Walters).

I couldn’t help thinking not just of "Three Men and a Baby," but of the hoary old TV movie with Phoebe Cates called "Lace" in which the actress got to ask, "Which one of you bitches is my mother?" It makes no sense and, by the way, one of the guys turns out to be gay.

So everyone gets to burst into song, and none of it is very good. Brosnan is the absolute worst — he can’t sing at all and doesn’t even try. The unflappable, plucky Streep is the best, although her voice sounds like it’s been pretty well-processed by AutoTune and other contrivances.

But she’s Meryl Streep, our finest actress, you argue: What’s going on here? I think the answer is, she’s having fun, and while the movie is an embarrassment, Streep’s place in acting is so secure that she can afford to make a mistake.

Most of "Mamma Mia!" is stunning in the way that the famed movie musical bomb, "Can’t Stop the Music" was in 1980. That calamity still reverberates to this day. If they still had double bills at drive-ins, “Mamma Mia!” would be its mate. For example: it’s a musical with dance numbers but no one who will admit to being the choreographer. That may be because is there is no choreography. There’s a lot of crazy camera work, though, and herky jerky stuff designed to fill time.

The women, at least, seem to be having fun. In the best of all the musical numbers, set to "Dancing Queen," everything works. Baranski, who never fails, cuts through the junk of the film like a knife with her blistering delivery. Walters gets a few laughs on her own and sets up the penultimate number, "Take a Chance on Me," with bravado.

The men, however, are abysmal. Firth and Skarsgard each look like they’re suffering in the Greek heat without air conditioning. The latter is red-faced throughout and seems ready to collapse at any moment. Brosnan, choosing his "Matador" persona over 007, has mastered the buffoon a little too well by now.

Director Phyllida Lloyd makes an inauspicious debut and takes campy to new levels of madness. By the end of the film, the women and the men seem — for better or worse — like miserable drag queens who’d rather just wash off the makeup and go home. Maybe it’s a British sensibility. But there are fewer men for this audience than there were for "Sex and the City" —and that’s saying something.

Well, I didn’t come here to bury "Mamma Mia!" even though I can’t praise it. Suffice to say, ABBA fans — whoever they are, and there are millions — may set all this aside and just groove to the music. But really, the title of this film, if it’s to stick with the group, would have been better as "SOS."

Waiting for 2008 Oscar Nominees

Wow — all of a sudden, with a lull over the holiday, some of the entertainment press has gotten worried there won’t be any Oscar nominees come December. Pish posh, I say: Don’t worry, they’re coming. It’s just taking a little longer than usual.

Here’s how things are shaping up. For Best Picture, there are plenty of potential titles. Already in the mix are Ron Howard’s "Frost/Nixon"; David Fincher’s "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Stephen Daldry’s "The Reader"; John Hillcoat’s "The Road"; Sam Mendes’ "Revolutionary Road"; Baz Luhrmann’s epic "Australia"; Joe Wright’s "The Soloist"; Gavin O’Connor’s "Pride and Glory"; Clint Eastwood’s "Changeling"; The Coen Brothers’ "Burn After Reading"; Woody Allen’s "Vicky Christina Barcelona"; Isabel Coixet’s "Elegy"; Oliver Stone’s "W"; and Jon Avnet’s "Righteous Kill." Tom McCarthy’s "The Visitor," already out, is a subtle triumph. Richard Jenkins, its star, could be headed to Best Actor.

There are also loads of performances. Penelope Cruz is a cinch for the Woody Allen film as Best Supporting Actress, but look out for her in "Elegy," my sources say. She has two magnificent turns this year. Ditto Kate Winslet in "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road."

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen should be right in the Best Actor field with "Frost/Nixon," Leonardo DiCaprio for "Revolutionary Road" and Ralph Fiennes for "The Reader." The one actor performance that could be a breakthrough: Viggo Mortensen in "The Road."

And then there are miscellaneous performances from other films, many of which we don’t know about. Melissa Leo is a knockout in "Frozen River," which was shown at Sundance. Streep and Amy Adams are said to be spectacular in the film version of "Doubt," a potential Best Film nominee. "English Patient" star Kristin Scott Thomas is said to have given her best performance yet in a French film called "I’ve Loved You So Long."

Then there is the slam-dunk so far: Heath Ledger already has his nomination as the Joker in "The Dark Knight." Very few people have seen it, but this is said to be a crowning achievement in the beloved actor’s short career.

And it’s a long shot, but don’t be surprised if Robert Downey Jr. makes a good campaign and case for his role in "Iron Man." It’s a winner.

Delta Dawns; Ritchie's Riches

Attention talent bookers at all the TV shows: Delta Goodrem is about to arrive in the U.S. from Australia. The 23-year-old’s debut album on Mercury is sensational and should establish her in the Celine Dion/Faith Hill mode. The girl can sing, she’s beautiful and she has a story: At 18, she overcame Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’m told she’s already booked with "The View." Regis, Matt and Meredith, Jay Leno, take heed: Here comes a Grammy Best New Artist nominee. …

Someone at Warner Bros. really likes Guy Ritchie. Madonna’s hubby hasn’t made a good movie in 10 years, but the studio is investing in him like crazy. On Halloween, he has "RockNRolla" coming out. On Wednesday, Warner announced that Ritchie will direct Robert Downey Jr. in "Sherlock Holmes." The press release dovetails with Ritchie’s public marital woes and/or Madonna’s public relations campaign to sell concert tickets. In any case, until "RockNRolla" is seen, his career at least is on the upswing. …