Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie Is Only Semi-Fab

Photo: David Appleby/Fox Searchlight

Turning a TV show into a movie is a dicey proposition. When the series in question has not regularly aired in a decade or two, adaptations often skew toward the satirical and/or meta in order to inject new relevance into the material. (See 21 Jump Street or, for that matter, 22 Jump Street.) Translations that attempt to more accurately capture the sensibility of the original source material — say, The Simpsons Movie or the X-Files films — can work, too, but tend to resonate more when the program in question still feels like an active part of the Zeitgeist.

There is nothing meta about Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, a theatrical feature based on the BBC comedy that, in 1992, introduced us to the boozy, self-involved misadventures of inept PR specialist Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and her fashion mag maven BFF, Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), nor is the show still part of the entertainment conversation. While the series’s sporadic seasons continued into the 2000s, with a handful of specials airing as recently as 2012, it’s been a while since the comedy was a true cultural talking point, especially in the U.S. (The show also first found an audience here in the early '90s, when episodes aired in frequent rotation on Comedy Central.)

Yet director Mandie Fletcher and Saunders — who wrote the script and originally invented the characters with her sketch-comedy partner, Dawn French — attempt to faithfully translate Ab Fab to the screen as if it’s never gone away, an approach that, admittedly, probably strikes a deeper chord with audiences in the U.K., where the show is much more of a widely beloved institution. (Indeed, when it opened there earlier this month, it landed in second place at the box office.) To the eyes of this American who was a fan of the series, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, while amusing in spots, too often plays like a moderately decent TV-reunion show that’s diminished by its attempt to be a theatrical feature. It’s as if the film is taking after its own heroines: aspiring to something bigger than it should, and too often looking awkward in the process.

The plot, a thin conceit that gives all the scenes and comedic set pieces a reason to exist, swirls around Eddy’s desire to land fashion model Kate Moss as a client, both for the sake of raising her profile in the publicity world and, more importantly, scoring a much-needed source of income. As the film opens, the always-improbably-wealthy Edina is strapped for cash, as illustrated by the fact that she’s officially out of champagne and isn’t sure how she can afford more. (Patsy, ever resourceful, licks the last vestiges of bubbly from the remaining empty bottles and, later, takes a few swigs from a bottle of Chanel No. 5.) Eddy sees Kate Moss as the potential solution to all of her money and self-esteem problems. Which is unfortunate since — and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s in the movie’s trailer — she accidentally winds up pushing Kate Moss into the Thames at a party and, possibly, becoming responsible for her death. (The news coverage of Moss's disappearance and the ensuing public mourning hew so close to how it would actually play out in real life, it's hard to know whether to laugh at it or tear up, just a little.)

For Ab Fab fans, a lot of the movie’s kicks come from seeing so many of the show’s familiar faces back together again in the same frame. That includes Julia Sawalha as Saffron, Eddy’s ultra-responsible daughter who’s still making a futile attempt to helicopter-parent her own mother, in addition to, now, her own daughter; Kathy Burke as the gust of order-barking wind that is Magda, editor of the magazine for which Patsy (allegedly) works; June Whitfield as Eddy’s dotty mother; and Jane Horrocks as Bubble, Eddy’s dim bulb of an assistant who still dresses like an avant-garde toddler on her way to a runway show. A string of cameos from bold-facers who have popped up in the Ab Fab universe before (Spice Girl Emma Bunton, Moss) as well as those who are new to the “sweetie, darling” landscape (Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie, Jon Hamm) adds an enjoyable spot-the-celeb element to the proceedings.

But the real reason you come for more Ab Fab, and the reason the series was a success in the first place, is because of the chemistry between Saunders and Lumley. That hasn’t been diluted at all by the passage of time. As Eddy, Saunders is still desperate to impress and, in what is clearly a metaphor for her entire personality, tottering around in platform shoes that threaten to send her toppling, at any moment, from her high perch. As Patsy, Lumley continues to glide around in that blonde updo, projecting the kind of entitled confidence possessed solely by well-dressed, financially and alcoholically well-lubricated women who lost any fucks they still had to give sometime in the mid-1960s. Where Eddy is always in a panic about something, flap-flap-flapping about, Patsy is simply unflappable.

That combination worked beautifully on television, where the pacing and writing were much sharper. On film, it hits its marks at times, but not as often as one would hope. Absolutely Fabulous feels overstretched, and as a result, even though Saunders and Lumley remain great together, some of the snap gets sapped out of their exchanges as the film plods nonsensically from one story point to the next.

The whole concept of Edina and Patsy — their over-the-top ensembles, their hunger to stay hip, their unquenchable need to keep partying even after closing time clearly came for them a long time ago — has always been a commentary on what it means to age when you have two X chromosomes. “No one in our society wants women to grow old,” Saunders is telling us by creating these characters. “Let me show you how ridiculous it looks when two women steadfastly refuse to do so.”

There’s a moment in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie  that brilliantly makes that point. While in the south of France, Edina and Patsy enter what they think is going to be a chic and happening party — and a place to potentially pick up a rich dude — only to find a roomful of older women, including Eddy’s mother, dancing with one another. They ask where the men are and are told they’re outside on the patio, having their own party. Once outside, our fabulous ladies are thrilled to find themselves in the middle of a much more glamorous, sexy soiree, filled with seemingly fat-walleted old men. Then they realize all the women flirting among the sea of age spots are 40 years younger than they are. It quickly becomes clear that Edina and Patsy are not wanted there.

As we learned all too well from the recent Ghostbusters bro-backlash, women are often pushed off the metaphorical patio in the world of Hollywood comedy, too, especially as they get older. Which is why, flawed though it may be, I’m pleased that Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie exists. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley deserve a place smack in the center of any dance floor. I just hope that next time, they get the chance to dance more gracefully — or, rather, with the same kind of well-oiled, Edina and Patsy messiness that qualified as comedic grace during so many deliciously wicked episodes of Ab Fab.