What with post-referendum blues, our two leading political parties in utter disarray, and England’s Euros defeat (even if richly deserved) to Iceland, it feels as if the nation needs cheering up. Given this scenario, the release of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie feels brilliantly timed. Like the outstanding TV comedy series from the 1990s, it offers daft, outrageous, devil-may-care entertainment. Certainly, it’s cheerful enough. If only it was sharper, stronger – and, dare one say it, better.
The crucial difference here is one of format. Jennifer Saunders, a brilliant comedy writer, was adept at the TV sitcom, and made each episode of Ab Fab a brilliant little jewel, perfectly realised enough to stand alone, whether at 30 minutes or an hour. The movie runs for 90 minutes, relatively short in big-screen terms, but that extra length brings a loss of the snap and zest that made the sitcom so compulsive. The plotting is flimsy and insubstantial – a good half of the film feels like filler.
Saunders reprises her role as the blazingly egotistical publicity agent Eddy, now well past her career peak. The invaluable Joanna Lumley returns as Patsy, the one-time magazine editor and poster girl for alcohol, drug abuse and promiscuity. Even this many years on, they’re quite a team.
The story, such as it is, divides into two segments. In the first, set in London, we learn that supermodel Kate Moss is looking for a new publicity agent; Eddy is desperate that she should be the chosen one. She accosts the model at a ritzy Thames-side party and accidentally knocks her off a balcony and into the river. Her body is not found, and the story becomes a sensation.
But this narrative is suddenly dropped as Eddy and Patsy take off for the French Riviera; Eddy badly needs money and Patsy is confident she can sweet-talk one of her rich ex-lovers into handing over some cash. This plan reaches surreal proportions when Patsy dresses up as a man (complete with false moustache) and sets about wooing a very elderly woman, said to be the richest in the world.
The whole thing’s a caper, of course, and perhaps it’s asking too much for it to have any internal logic. But there were times in the last third of the film when it felt like Saunders and Lumley were making it up as they went along.
How do you pad such a slender premise into a feature-length film? The answer, regrettably and predictably, is cameos: a long line of celebrities (and would-be celebrities) shuffle on to the screen to deliver a couple of lines each. Look, there’s Graham Norton. Isn’t that Stella McCartney? Check out Emma Bunton – Baby Spice to you. Did I just catch a glimpse of Dame Edna Everage? And... oh no, it’s Christopher Biggins.
That’s only about 10 per cent of the cameos in the film – and they’re excruciating. You note a familiar face, put a name to it and move on to the next. It feels like trainspotting, but less fun.
I can’t say I didn’t laugh a few times. Lumley gets the best lines – though in fairness Saunders wrote them for her. In one scene Patsy literally drinks Chanel No. 5, and in another injects her own face with Botox. There’s a very funny scene on a plane when Edina is confronted by a sour flight attendant (Rebel Wilson). But the portions of real wit are spread rather thinly.
On the plus side, Julia Sawalha is splendid as Saffie, Eddy’s long-suffering, sensible, responsible daughter who despairs of her mother. Yet Jane Horrock’s witless Bubble feels all wrong as an older character. It seems as if Edina and Patsy were products of the precise time when Saunders created them – the early 90s; a more innocent, more frivolous era.
You’ll need to set your expectations low before entering – though I wouldn’t actually advise anyone to give a wide berth to Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. It might just raise a laugh, a chuckle, even a faint grin. And there’s not much in the world these days that can achieve that.
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