If you miss, oh-so-very-much, the brilliance of the BBC sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, Season 1 (1992), then the just-released movie—starring Jennifer Saunders as Edina and Joanna Lumley as Patsy—will warm many cockles.
The film, best watched with hollering and whooping fellow fans who are as delighted as you to see old friends and reprobates reunited, harks back to the jokes and tropes of that first season—Edina’s fretting about her weight and mortality as filtered through wacky diets and hideous outfits; Patsy’s sheer outrageousness—her quaffing Chanel No. 5 when there is no booze available, or vainly licking the exterior of a champagne bottle, desolate there is none of the fizzy stuff left inside.
At the screening I attended, there was cheering to the credits, and mini-whoops when each returning character appeared—from poor sensible daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha), to Edina’s mother (June Whitfield), and Edina’s dippy assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks).
When cameos—there are so many, from Kate Moss to Joan Collins—appear, there were more shrieks.
And depending on how much joy you possess to greet these old friends will govern how much you enjoy a film in which, even the most unalloyed fan of the show would have to accept, the plot is stretched almost fatally too thin.
The vacuity-embracing worlds of fashion and PR, so mercilessly skewered in the TV show, are presented ripe again here for satire. Over the years that satire has become pock-marked by celebration too, which would explain all the models and fashion figures who feature in the movie too.
Jerry Hall, now Mrs. Rupert Murdoch, sends herself up magnificently, relating how much she loves Chanel—in order, presumably, to purloin more Chanel—to a journalist chewing his knuckles with boredom on the red carpet.
As well as Stella McCartney—horrified by Eddie wearing a dress of hers—and models, whom Edina imagines fêteing her as cool—prime among the fashion luminaries here is Kate Moss, whom Edina accidentally shoves into the River Thames, while trying to court her as a client. The fallout of this is a 24-hour news event, as the supermodel is suspected of drowning and journalists the world over lose their minds over it.
Of course, Eddie—clueless about Twitter and hemorrhaging clients and status—and Patsy take off to the South of France, and what they hope is freedom.
The best thing about the film are the harkings-back to that golden first season: the return of the nurse (Llewella Gideon), who, with pursed lips, is always ready to tell Eddie how fat she is; Eddie’s nemesis Claudia Bing (Celia Imrie), slithering around and very keen to frame Eddie for murder. Patsy and Edina are a drunken disaster area themselves: in an extended scene in which they abuse as many substances as possible, they come up with the bright idea to float Bubble in the Thames to find Kate Moss, and think they have killed her too.
The humor, necessarily for the big screen, is broader with the movie. There’s a car chase scene, with Eddie and Patsy trying to evade capture in a tiny trader’s van. The “devastation” of the fashion world over Kate Moss’s death is neatly conveyed by people complaining over sore toes. Saffy and her daughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) are swept up in the madness. Booze is royally consumed. Insane clothes are proudly worn.
Saffy—the moral core of the film—finds herself at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s oldest queer venues, singing to a room of drag queens for information of her mother’s whereabouts. Her scenes oddly don’t work as funny or not-funny. She’s also in love with a policeman (Robert Webb, playing it straight).
Always on trend, AbFab: The Movie also chews over transgender matters, in the rough-housing way it always has (fans will remember Patsy’s little operation from many years ago; and now Marshall, Eddie’s first husband, is transitioning). Patsy, as a man, finds love, in another gender-blurring moment with Lubliana (Marcia Warren), the richest woman in the world whose snail-slow journeys in a funicular are one of the film’s visual joys.
Lola is merely swept up in her grandmother’s crazy run from justice, but—and this is a general fault with the film—has nothing much to do or say. She is neither funny or serious, knowing or impressionable. She just sort of crops up in scenes.
The best parts of the movie are Eddie and Patsy being Eddie and Patsy, and just being mean or absurd, or chunnering on about life and their universe. The high-volume, frenzied padding around that left even the most devoted in our audience a little quiet. But a piercing zinger was always round the corner to make us cackle.
The demands of the big screen, the need to expand the scope and tone of a TV show, is to the show’s detriment. Edina and Patsy are big enough to not be super-sized by cinema, and no matter how fun and impressive cameos there are, it can’t quite offset the feeling that AbFab: The Movie, is, like its two heroines near the end, gasping for air.
But its mess, its fun, its outrageousness, proves ultimately winning enough. Jon Hamm gives a pained and muted turn as himself, still furious that Patsy took his virginity as a young man. Edina opens her heart, and confesses her love for Saffy, at the perfect moment; and is perfectly furious when she discovers she didn’t have to show genuine emotion after all.
For fans, the movie retreads other classic moments by, well repeating them—Patsy condemning Saffy as a “bitch troll,” for example—and, along with the feeling of déjà vu, the viewer is left feeling it may have been better the first time around.
It’s intriguing that in the movie, the warmth of Patsy and Edina’s friendship is emphasized, whereas the TV series configured the women’s friendship more trickily, with currents of hideous co-dependency and game-playing.
The satire of fashion and PR isn’t as sharp either—and this just because it is 24 years since AbFab made this satire original. AbFab ushered in a jokey knowingness of the excesses and chicanery of these worlds; other shows and movies followed and emulated it. So, the same joke tropes do not have the same bite.
But this fan, and all the fans around him, still loved spending time with Eddie and Patsy. Nobody does ridiculous pratfalls like them. Nobody drinks like them. Nobody abuses illegal substances like them. Nobody is better comically interrogating frailty, frustrated ambition, fat, mortality, love, and… well how to live well on the Riviera when you’re on the run for a supermodel’s alleged murder. It’s a shame things are resolved jolly abruptly, and a little too neatly.
But, as Edina tells Lola, this charabanc of boozing and misadventures is “living”—and, as such, should be relished. In that spirit, long may the ladies misbehave, wheels ragingly on fire.