To understand what Absolutely Fabulous (first a TV show and now a movie) means to Brits, you’d have to go back to the TV premiere, in 1992. Margaret Thatcher had their economy in a stranglehold until her departure as prime minister two years earlier, and when every sensible citizen was looking for a way out of the first Gulf War and a more liberal savior, somehow — miraculously, unfortunately — conservatives showed up to the polls in record numbers and took the general election. The rich had gotten richer with tax cuts mirroring our own trickle-down Reaganomics and, with little control over economic trends, the only thing left to do was make fun of the wealthy. Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), two hard-drinking, youth-obsessed bacchanalian ne’er-do-wells, were fit for the skewer. Now, in this post-Brexit world, they are back once again to lampoon the swells, the racists, the tech-and-vanity addicted. The pair revels in excess and proves that we all take ourselves a little too seriously.
It’s best to look at Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie as an ultra-long episode of the show. Everyone’s back, from Eddy’s normal, put-upon straight-woman child Saffron (Julia Sawalha) to dim-witted personal assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), with her outrageous high-fashion parody outfits. Now, Saffron’s 13-year-old daughter, Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), is in the picture and recruited by everyone’s two favorite lushes to stick it to her mom and join the party, but mostly because Edina’s out of money (“My cards are broken!”) and Lola’s got good credit. Eddy’s only hope to get back on top (and fill up the champagne cooler) is to nab fashion icon Kate Moss as a PR client. Unfortunately, she instead accidentally pushes Moss into the Thames, killing her, drawing the ire of all of England and getting Patsy fired from her high-powered fashion-mag job.
After sending Kate into the river (and then shoving Bubble in, too, as an experiment to see which way the current is running), the drunken duo has no choice but to escape to the French Riviera in order for Patsy to reunite with a filthy-rich porn producer who once told her he’d wait for her (back in the ’70s when her tits were a bit more buoyant). When they get to the party, they realize every elite old man still gets his pick of the young girls, while the women age by themselves, nearly quarantined in a dusty parlor. “Oh, god!” Edina exclaims — she’s fat and old now. No matter. The two find another creative and hilarious way to marry for money and vacation in the South of France, escaping Eddy’s upcoming murder trial.
Edina and Patsy are like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, only replace the chocolate with cocaine, eternal-youth fetal-cell injections, bolly (champagne), and cigarettes. The art of physical comedy is alive and well with Saunders and Lumley, who precisely calculate each well-timed tumble. In the first scene, they accidentally bumble onto a fashion-show runway, shuffling back and forth in garish platform heels with the models, trying to break out of the line and make it to their seats. When they finally sit down, they squeeze others onto the floor, oblivious to everyone’s aghast glances.
In the first five minutes of the film, they’ve already crashed that show, literally dragged themselves out of a car, fallen two stories into a stairwell, and passed out on the toilet. Their characters have been living the YOLO style since before there was an acronym, but what makes them special in the pantheon of “You Do You” characters is that they’re not shiny and young; they’re “mature,” expressing the anxieties of aging while woman.
For those who aren’t anglophiles and don’t keep up with British culture, the step-and-repeat of cameos may lose some impact. Hell, if you’re under thirty, a lot of jokes might go straight over your head. Do young people know who Kate Moss is? Would they understand how hilarious it is that people keep placing wellie boots and sauvignon blanc at her vigil site? If you don’t, 50 percent of the film might be a wash for you. But even if you can’t catch everyone in the pasty-white-people parade, there’s no denying the universality of physical comedy or the power of Eddy and Patsy’s signature clenched-jaw chuckling as they drunkenly hatch another bad get-rich-and-famous plan.
Can Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley see the future to know when we’ll hurt and need a laugh? I’m not sure, but they’ve seemed to pop up just when we need them. On the way to the screening I attended, I found myself in the car, white-knuckling it on curvy Mulholland Drive, trying not to cry at accounts of Bastille Day revelers in Nice murdered in a terrorist attack. I didn’t know Ab Fab was going to be set in the French Riviera between Cannes and Nice, flaunting the carefree lifestyle of the francophones, a perfect place for Eddy and Patsy to escape. But it proved a light and welcome surprise. Before the opening credits rolled, a man next to me said to no one in particular, “I hope this is funny, because I really need to laugh.” Luckily, it was, and we did.