In some ways, it’s odd we’re even talking about an Absolutely Fabulous movie in 2016. What began as a wickedly funny, boundary-pushing British sitcom that ran for three seasons in the first half of the 1990s has since seemingly seen more reunions, revivals, and would-be final appearances than Black Sabbath. Now the show that refuses to die has returned in movie form as, fittingly, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.
Yet, in other ways, the time couldn’t be better for an AbFab revival. Every other ’90s TV fixture — from The X-Files to Full House — has come back from the dead, after all. And, if anything, time has deepened the central joke of the series. Before, the occasionally sober public-relations expert Edina Monsoon (writer and AbFab co-creator Jennifer Saunders) and her ex-model best friend Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), ’60s women to the core, seemed only a couple of decades out of touch with the changing times. Now they truly seem like relics of a bygone era who don’t have the good sense to settle into a more dignified lifestyle.
But there’s always been layers to AbFab‘s concept. Sure, Patsy and Edina are ridiculous, and their delusions make life hell for Edina’s daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), a sober, pragmatic GenX-er determined to avoid all the mistakes of the previous generation. But they’re also free spirits who’ve carried a youthful sense of revolt and an engagement with the world deep into adulthood. Sure, they create a lot of chaos, inhale more drugs and booze than any human body should be able to withstand, and have somehow confused ’60s idealism with ’80s materialism, but they’re also fun. And, perhaps most importantly, they share a real friendship that even their own selfishness can’t undo. You can laugh at them, but it’s hard not to admire their commitment to life and to each other. (And Saffron, for all her good qualities, is something of a buzzkill.)
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie finds little changed since last we saw the gang during the 2012 Olympics special. Saffron lives at home with her teenaged daughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness). Also still hanging around: Edina’s still-unnamed mother (June Whitfield, now 90) and Edina’s assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), whose bizarre fashion sense now includes an outfit made in part of inflatable hashtags.
Also as usual: The plot is of less concern than the situations it allows Saunders, who wrote the script, and director Mandie Fletcher, a veteran of British TV comedies, to create. Edina’s dwindling finances, in addition to forcing Patsy to lick empty bottles of champagne in hopes of finding a few remaining bubbles for breakfast, compel her first to seek a book deal for her memoirs then to add Kate Moss to a roster of clients that currently only includes Lulu, Spice Girl Emma Bunton, and a boutique vodka brand. (All but the vodka brand have extended cameos.) When Edina appears to push Moss accidentally into the Thames, and to her death, she becomes the most hated woman in Great Britain.
What follows will come as no surprise to fans of the show and will likely be incomprehensible to most everyone else. Patsy and Edina trace a path of destruction through the fashion world, bumping up against familiar supporting characters from the series and a lot of real-life celebrities in the process. Some, like Jerry Hall and Stella McCartney, have a line or two. Others, like Jon Hamm and Rebel Wilson, make substantial, and funny, contributions.
But the focus never falls far from the central pair and the chemistry between Saunders and Lumley hasn’t dimmed a bit. Edina remains perilously balanced between manic enthusiasm and soul-crushing despondency. Patsy is, as ever, an id monster driven by a single-minded pursuit of a good time, and Lumley is never afraid to sacrifice her dignity in the name of a joke, even donning a mustache for an extended sequence that finds her masquerading as a man.
It’s all a bit shambling and sloppy, but it’s also frequently funny thanks to the time-tested ensemble and a parade of funny lines, and the feature film budget allows for a ratcheting up of the fashion-damaged grotesquerie to almost Fellini-esque levels, particularly in a late sequence involving Barry Humphries as an aging pornographer. And, as in the best AbFab episodes, there’s a touch of soulfulness to it, too. “There was a time the zeitgeist blew through me,” Edina begins to lament in a moment of self-awareness before getting distracted by some new attempt to stay relevant.
The zeitgeist blows elsewhere now, for the characters and for Absolutely Fabulous, which has lost much of its sense of danger and unpredictability in the process of becoming a comedy institution. But catching up with Patsy and Edina provides a weirdly comforting sense of permanence. The world keeps turning, and they keep on running in a desperate attempt to catch up.