The new Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is not for the uninitiated. If you’re not already a fan of the cultish ’90s TV series, chances are you’ll have no clue what’s supposed to be funny about two clownish women of a certain age in ridiculous clothing attempting to stave off the ravages of time with gallons of champagne, while clinging desperately, by ferociously manicured claws, to the ragged fringes of trendy pop culture.
But those who already have a soft spot in their hearts for the ribald and outrageous TV series will find much to chuckle at in the big-screen adventures of sad-sack Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and coolly caustic Patsy (Joanna Lumley). Scripted by series creator Saunders for director Mandie Fletcher (veteran of many of the TV episodes), the movie falls prey to the usual pitfalls of TV-to-film adaptations: it’s tough to maintain a coherent storyline and keep delivering the laughs over 90 minutes instead of 30.
Still, despite the slower passages, the brio with which Eddie and Patsy pursue their absurd agenda—in the face of common sense, common decency and reality—remains oddly cheer-worthy. And beneath the frantic facade lurks a sharp satire of our celebrity-obsessed society, along with, at times, a surprisingly poignant look at how women who have the bad judgment to age are treated by the popular culture that finds them so instantly disposable.
In the movie plot, would-be PR maven Eddie and sporadically employed fashion editor Patsy are at a crossroads. The alimony payments Eddie has been receiving for decades from her ex are about to run out. This is bad news for the household his checks support, which includes Eddie’s sane, straight-arrow, long-suffering daughter, Saffy (Julia Sawalha), her elderly, slightly nuts mum (June Whitfield), her loopy factotum, Bubble (Jane Horrocks), and Saffy’s mixed-race 13-year-old daughter, Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), recently arrived from Africa.
The cheerfully dysfunctional duo is unable to grasp the concept of economy, even after Saffy cuts up her mother’s credit cards and empties all the champagne from their walk-in refrigerator. (“If you want things, you’re going to have to pay for them,” Saffy declares, to which Patsy replies with scrunch-faced disbelief, “Since when?”) When Eddie tries to sell her memoirs to a publisher (Mark Gattis, portrayer of Mycroft Holmes on TV’s Sherlock, which he also co-created), her book is rejected on the grounds that her life is “not interesting,” and nobody’s ever heard of her.
When word comes that supermodel Kate Moss is in the market for a new PR firm, Eddie and Pats crash a trendy London fashion event to try to sign her up—a celebrity-crammed sequence that lambasts the cult of the famous, and the even more vapid folk who interview them on the red carpet. Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) and Jon Hamm are very funny as themselves in cameos.
But a major mishap has Eddie and Pats pursued by police and paparazzi alike. They pack up Lola (who’s just been sent a shiny new credit card from her dad), and head for Cannes, where they hope to reconnect with a wealthy playboy who once pined for Pats, sometime back in the Thatcher administration.
But the plot doesn’t matter; it’s just the framework on which to hang random laughs, like the girls’ first distasteful experience flying economy class (Rebel Wilson is their tough-cookie stewardess). When Pats runs out of champagne, she snorts Chanel No. 5 out of a flask. Hot on the trail of her wayward mom and daughter, Saffy winds up at a drag club, singing “At Seventeen”—which has all of the drag queens singing along, in tears.
The perpetual joke is that our heroines don’t realize they are no longer players in the trendy fashionista scene (if they ever were)— even though Pats still wears the same beehive hairdo, and Eddie incurs the wrath of Stella McCartney for daring to wear her clothes. As a movie, there’s not much there, but it’s still touching when Eddie admits their outrageous antics are their only defense against the fear of getting old and obsolete. At least the Ab Fab franchise continues to tout the joys of growing old disgracefully.
ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: THE MOVIE
**1/2 (out of four)
With Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks, and June Whitfield. Written by Jennifer Saunders. Directed by Mandie Fletcher. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 86 minutes.