Absolutely Fabulous - The Movie (United Kingdom/United States, 2016)

July 21, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Absolutely Fabulous - The Movie Poster

Understanding British humor can be a vexing experience for some American viewers. Although the two countries share a common language, comedy doesn’t necessarily translate across the ocean. Absolutely Fabulous, a hugely popular TV hit in England but an obscure property in the United States, is a case in point. This first feature film spin-off was a major box office success in its homeland but, in North America, Fox Searchlight is marketing it as a niche feature. A scathing satire of conspicuous consumption and a fashion-obsessed culture, Absolutely Fabulous - The Movie hits most of its targets and twists the knife but, as funny as the material sometimes is, the flimsy narrative and threadbare caricatures encounter difficulties trying to sustain a 90 minute motion picture.

Absolutely Fabulous falls into segment of British comedy in which the main characters are vile, detestable, and self-absorbed. (Well-known examples include Fawlty Towers and Till Death Do Us Part, which inspired All in the Family.) This isn’t a case when the putative protagonists advance the plot; they exist largely to enhance the satirical elements by being as overbearing, idiotic, and off-putting as possible. The comedy derives from those characteristics. In Absolutely Fabulous, the intent isn’t for the characters to provide a portal into the story; we’re supposed to laugh at them and relish their misfortunes.

The TV series Absolutely Fabulous came into being in 1992 and has been on and off British television since. In the United States, the program’s appeal has been limited with the early series showing on PBS and the 20th anniversary specials on BBC America. The decision to continue the characters’ misadventures in a movie was motived by financial and creative concerns (not unlike Sex and the City). In the United States, it’s hard to believe that Absolutely Fabulous - The Movie will cultivate new fans. Although nothing is likely to confuse or alienate newcomers, the production will find favor primarily among the niche audience that watched its television predecessor.

Absolutely Fabulous exists as a repudiation of the culture embraced by Sex and the City - one in which image, materialism, and consumption are celebrated. It’s a more effective evisceration than what Ben Stiller offered in Zoolander. There are no holy cows here; everything and everyone is fair game and those familiar with the gentler style of mainstream American comedies may wonder if some of Absolutely Fabulous’ lines and actions cross boundaries of taste and propriety. The filmmakers don’t care and that’s a strength. It is at times very funny and it’s unwillingness to pull punches (which, it must be noted, doesn’t always work) is bracing.

Absolutely Fabulous - The Movie brings back many of the personalities from the TV series: best friends Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley); Edina’s daughter, Saffron (Julie Sawalha) and mother (June Whitfield); and the faithful Bubble (Jane Horrocks). Smaller roles are provided for Christopher Ryan, Mo Gaffney, Helen Lederer, Harriet Thorpe, Kathy Burke, and Celia Imrie. There are about four dozen cameos including Joan Collins, Rebel Wilson, Graham Norton, Stella McCartney, and Kate Moss. (Many of those making appearances are C-list celebrities who aren’t known in the United States.)

The story - to the extent there is a story - follows Edina and Patsy as they flee to the South of France after Edina appears to have accidentally killed Kate Moss by knocking her off a balcony into the Thames. The narrative functions as the clothesline on which various comedic vignettes can be pinned. Once it has crossed the 30-minute mark, Absolutely Fabulous’ appeal begins to wane and the ending, which features a quasi-dramatic scene, doesn’t work even for a story as fatuous as this one.

Although Saunders’ presence remains small screen, Lumley (who has a lengthy movie resume) steals every scene in which she appears. The chemistry between the two matches what it was on television but Lumley owns this medium. No one comes close to matching her delicious scenery chewing. Julie Sawalha doesn’t have a lot to do but makes the most of her few opportunities, constantly looking bewildered and singing “At Seventeen” in front of a room full of drag queens.

Absolutely Fabulous is an acquired taste so the question of whether the movie works depends on a viewer’s past association with the TV series. This isn’t a good place to “enter” the Ab Fab universe but it’s a decent continuation of a previously started journey.

Absolutely Fabulous - The Movie (United Kingdom/United States, 2016)

Director: Mandie Fletcher
Cast: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julie Sawalha, June Whitfield, Jane Horrocks
Screenplay: Jennifer Saunders
Cinematography: Chris Goodger
Music: Jake Monaco
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2016-07-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1