It would take a comedic genius like Joanna Lumley to turn the single word “Gabon” into a three-act play. But it is the visionary Jennifer Saunders who wrote the joke, gave it to her partner in crime and brought the outrageous world of “Absolutely Fabulous” to life. And for that, we should all be in awe. Saunders is the star and creator of “Absolutely Fabulous” — “Ab Fab,” to fans — the movie based on the hit series that ran on BBC One for twenty years, and one of the most successful series-to-movie adaptations of the last decade.
Not that “Absolutely Fabulous” is a cinematic masterpiece, but unlike the big screen versions of “Sex and The City” or the just-released “Looking,” “Absolutely Fabulous” captures the irreverent fun of the series using an appropriately absurd plot device and does not read like a tired excuse to put the characters back in a room together. It’s no surprise, the Brits do know their playwriting.
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The opening credits feature choice physical comedy, one of the hallmarks of the series. Edina (Saunders) and Patsy (Lumley) push models off their seats during a fancy fashion show, walk the runway mistakenly and twerk the way only a woman of a certain age can (“Look! I’m twerking!”). As always, their extravagant shopping and partying catches up with the two friends. When the bubbly runs out — and Patsy starts knocking back the Chanel No. 5 — they must scheme new ways to make money.
When Patsy learns that “Kate Moss is changing her PR,” Edina sets her sights on landing the very tiny bigwig as a client. But when she sees Kate at a party, smoking on a balcony, she gets so excited that she accidentally knocks her into the Thames. Panic ensues when Kate does not wash up, and Edina finds herself facing the entire nation’s ire and a possible manslaughter charge for killing Kate Moss. None of which compares to the humiliation of Stella McCartney throwing a brick through her window. (“First thing I’ve ever had from Stella.”)
The ladies abscond to Cannes, so Patsy can entrap a filthy rich old flame into marriage. Then, the two women can really live the dream. But when she finds him, he has upgraded to a much younger version, as have all the other old men in Cannes. In an odd twist, Patsy throws on a mustache and a tux to instead woo the richest woman in the world, a Baroness in a wheelchair.
“Absolutely Fabulous” has enough of the series’ charm to appeal to new viewers, at least those already in its target demographic. At a recent advance screening in Chelsea, dapper gays applauded each character’s onscreen entrance like they were at a Broadway show. When the lights went down, one guy asked his date, “Are you ready?” The response: “Always.” Saunders and Lumley even made an appearance beforehand to take in the adoration and thank their loyal fans.
“It was basically the LGBT community in New York that broke ‘Ab Fab’ in America,” said Saunders to cheers. “We love you very much.” Lumley took the mic and added: “I think we love you very much more than very much.”
The movie is chock full of cameos from Jon Hamm, Kate Moss, Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton, Dame Edna Everage, Joan Collins, and Rebel Wilson. Saunders’ original writing partner on the series, the brilliant Dawn French, also makes a brief appearance. (The two honed their comedy chops together with one of the best sketch shows ever made, “French and Saunders”). It also delivers its characteristically shocking quips, like Patsy’s take on Botox: “You need to be using stem cells. With a little spritz of afterbirth.”
The plethora of women over forty in the movie gives Edina’s fears of growing fat and irrelevant a ring of authenticity. Every scene features an older woman, many of them large and in charge, running some industry or event. Even as the movie skewers the seriousness with which these characters take their jobs, the shallow world of “Absolutely Fabulous” is nonetheless a female-run one. It is a world where women can be fat, mean, competitive or incompetent and never lose their power. While the men rub elbows with young foreign models, Patsy and Edina have more fun with each other. Without forcing the point, the movie is a testament to female friendship.
Saunders’ attempts to appeal to younger audiences fall a bit flat. Chris Colffer (“Glee”) is loud in all the wrong ways as Edina’s hairdresser, and his flimsy flamboyance is not worthy of sharing the screen with the British comedy royalty that abounds. Saunders also seems intent on proving how un-PC she can be, with more than a few misfires about trans people and Edina’s mixed-race granddaughter. Her loyal audience can handle seeing Patsy do her own lipo, but the laughs stop with racism or transphobia.
Still, Saunders proves that she has earned her place in the canon of revered divas. (Let us take a moment to praise gay men’s unceasing devotion to flawed older women.) Since Saunders wrote “Absolutely Fabulous,” the world is a little brighter, a little brasher, and a lot more, well, fabulous.