The release of “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” is genius counter-programming against the other massive media story of the week – the Republican National Convention. This outlandish, flamboyant British trifle is like a glass of champagne directly to the face of these dog days of a very trying summer. We could all use a dose of escapism, and “Ab Fab” is a big, bright and viciously bold celebration of funny, flawed women, and the friendship that sustains them.
Creator, writer and star Jennifer Saunders launched a cult phenomenon with the BBC series in 1992, a pointed satire of the women who rule the worlds of PR and fashion. PR agent Edina (Saunders) and fashion editor Patsy (Joanna Lumley) are vapid, trend-chasing mavens, nearly crippled by a dependency on booze and cigarettes, outfitted in outrageously loud and ridiculous garments. But they’re just as lovable as they are hateable, sweetly vulnerable and wickedly funny. They never stop trying for more, and while that may be for shallow, materialistic things, their striving is laudable.
The film reunites the “Ab Fab” gang: Eddie’s long-suffering, pragmatic daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), her mother (June Whitfield) and her assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), along with some new faces and celebrities in the mix. The plot centers around Eddie’s plan to snag Kate Moss as a client for her flagging PR firm, and the ensuing brouhaha that happens when she accidentally knocks Kate into the Thames River during a fashion party dust-up. It sets off an international incident and Eddie finds herself the most notorious woman in England.
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Saunders and Lumley inhabit the characters as well as they ever have, with tart jokes and silly asides flying faster than you can catch them. “Ab Fab” has never been for the faint of heart, with its savage humor, but Saunders so deftly threads the needle that it’s never mean-spirited or offensive. By making Eddie and Patsy the butt of the joke more often than not, they can get away with comedy that flirts with the edges of political correctness and taboo subjects.
Eddie and Patsy never change (thankfully for us). They still make the same silly mistakes and cook up the same hare-brained schemes, and Eddie’s clothes are still some of the funniest visual gags to be found anywhere (highlights include a wildly oversized bomber jacket with platform Timberland boots, as well as a large “Reality TV makes me SAD” brooch). Saunders frets and snacks and chants, while the leonine Lumley hisses and sneers and shimmies.
Director Mandie Fletcher is behind the camera, but Saunders is the auteur (she wrote the screenplay), and she and Lumley slip into the characters like the old friends that they are.
While the first half of the film stays in the familiar confines of Eddie’s (upgraded) kitchen, “Absolutely Fabulous” really gets going when they hit the beaches of Cannes, escaping from the police and paparazzi in London. Loosening up the location allows the characters to loosen up themselves, with Patsy seducing a rich paramour whom she’d never expect, Saffron finding her voice, and Eddie learning how to emotionally express herself. But any heartfelt clap-trap or self-awareness is quickly undercut with a dash of acid, and quickly poo-pooh’d away. But that warm, beating heart is undeniably present. Cheers, sweetie darling.
Cast: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks, Kate Moss, Emma Bunton, Rebel Wilson, Jon Hamm, Gwendoline Christie
Director: Mandie Fletcher
Rated R (language including sexual references, and some drug use)