It’s been 24 years since Absolutely Fabulous debuted on British television, which is astonishing enough as an irrevocable reminder of one’s own aging (naughty me, I watched the show as a pre-teen), but even more so when one realizes that it basically took those two-plus decades for the media and entertainment climate to catch up with Jennifer Saunders’ classic debauch-com. When “Ab Fab” crossed the pond and became a hit in the U.S., our cinematic comedy culture was still in the midst of a cloying PG-13 stranglehold. As such, this British import – with its reckless boozing, casual drug use, and endless partying, all fueled by blinding narcissism and a total rejection of grown-up responsibility – was something of a strident shocker. And what’s more, all of this behavior was being exhibited by women!
Saunders was a trailblazer, willfully blending satire with slapstick, supercharging it with raunch, and empowering women to be the conduits for all of the above. It took the better part of two decades for America to catch up. So oddly, the timing of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie feels simultaneously relevant from an evolutionary perspective and passé in terms of the current zeitgeist. The film’s brazen R-rated content now fits the mold it once broke, but here we are, long after the series’ mid-90s American hey-day and several years since its last brief resurgence on British TV. So, will modern audiences care? Maybe not. But bloody buggars be damned, what a trip it is to revisit this hazy, vodka-and-champagne-soaked world of faux-glitz, desperate celeb-worship, and celebratory self-spiraling.
If anything, the long layover between series and movie has lulled Saunders into a too-safe mode of fan service, ticking off all the familiar boxes like any other adaptation of a beloved media entity and avoiding too much direct contact with the satiric jugular. The film’s two most frequent points of direct mockery are, as ever, its antiheroic duo, Edina Monsoon (Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), still on the fringes of the fashion and entertainment industries, but just stubborn and shameless enough to occasionally fall drunkenly into the spotlight. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie finds Eddy and Patsy on their most bonkers adventure yet, having accidentally pushed Kate Moss into the River Thames and fleeing to the French Riviera after becoming the primary suspects in her apparent murder. It’s precisely the kind of farcical hysteria these two hot messes can’t help but create, resulting from the toxic combo of their narcissistic self-indulgence and painfully transparent desire to be part of the In Crowd. Along the way, they encounter a Greatest Hits of characters, including Eddy’s long-suffering daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha), senile mother (June Whitfield), daft assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), and sundry others, as well as a bevy of cameos, from the aforementioned Moss to British pop star Lulu, former Spice Girl Emma Bunton, Graham Norton, Rebel Wilson, Gwendolyn Christie, Stella McCartney, Joan Collins, and even Jon Hamm. A handful of them become active within the madcap narrative, while others are kitschy distractions.
The film’s comic rhythm sometimes feels too tailored for the small screen, with certain lines and pratfalls begging for the laugh track to follow them. It doesn’t help that director Mandie Fletcher, a veteran of the series and British TV, never quite figures out how best to translate this material into pure cinema. Certain sequences are over-edited into a frenzy that nearly matches the on-screen antics, while others remain static like a standard BBC sitcom. Another problem is more organic, the built-in limitation of any adaptation of legendary source material: managing a curtain call for the fans while staying true to the natural tone of the series and its characters. It’s a difficult act to balance, one that even a writer as sharp as Saunders can’t always pull off.
Yet, that inimitably anarchic Absolutely Fabulous spirit remains, and every second Saunders and Lumley share on screen generates a spark and a smile. So effortless is their chemistry and comic verve that it’s easy to forget just how brilliant they are, playing every octave on the comedic scale, from dry wit to over-the-top physical schtick, from cutting bitchiness to puppy-dog neediness, often within the same sequence. Cheers to a master class in comedic performance, sweetie darlings.