Mandie Fletcher (2016)
Longtime fans (who will likely make up the largest audience for this movie) will not need to be told, but for others let me just explain: Absolutely Fabulous was a BBC sitcom that gained a significant cult following in the United States as well. It began as a comedy sketch on the French and Saunders show, in which Jennifer Saunders played a shallow middle-aged woman with the emotional maturity of an adolescent, while Saunders’ comedy partner Dawn French (who subsequently starred in the popular sitcom The Vicar of Dibley) played Saunders’ teenaged daughter, who is forced to be the grownup in the family because of her mother’s immaturity. The sketch proved popular, and Saunders ultimately wrote six episodes that became the first season of Absolutely Fabulous in 1992. The series starred Saunders as the shallow, immature, self-involved PR professional Edina “Eddy” Monsoon. Her unlikely co-star was Joanna Lumley, who began her acting life as a Bond girl in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, graduated to starring roles in the television series The New Avengers and Sapphire and Steele, before landing the role of AbFab’s Patsy Stone—an alcoholic and drug-addled fashion editor obsessed with holding on to her youth and keeping the party going. Julia Sawalha was cast as Eddy’s steadfast 16-year old daughter Saffron (“Saffie”) who, mature before her time, must keep things together.
When you see the description of the show, it sounds pathetic rather than comic. But comedy demands detachment, and since the antics of Eddy and Patsy are so wildly over-the-top, they keep us from empathy with the characters, and induce laughter rather than tears as they satirize self-indulgent professionals obsessed with partying and with appearing young, hip, and fashionable as well as the society that puts pressure on women to be so obsessed. At least, in theory it provokes that laughter. And in practice, the show did seem to succeed at that: It aired from 1992 to 1996, with Lumley garnering two BAFTA awards and several nominations for comic actress, and returned with “menopause” from 2001 to 2004, and other intermittent shows from 2011-2012. Now, at last, AbFab has found its way to the big screen. The original cast of the TV show all show up in the wide-screen version, including Sawalha as the now middle-aged, earnest and tightly-wound Saffy, June Whitfield as Eddy’s mother, and Jane Horrocks as the outlandish Bubble, Eddy’s assistant.
Directed by Mandie Fletcher, who was the TV show’s director and has no previous experience in feature films, the film version of Absolutely Fabulous is (how could it be otherwise?) really just an unusually long episode of the TV show. The only significant difference is the setting: The TV show was usually limited to the kitchen and adjacent living areas of Eddy’s house. The film allows for the expansion of action into greater London and ultimately to the south of France, so that Eddy and Patsy can bring their pathetic obsessions into the wider world, and interact with crowds of people, including a bevy of celebrities from Kate Moss to Stella McCartney to Lulu and Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth), with a surprise and rather hilarious cameo by Jean-Paul Gaultier, seen with a metal-detector on the beach. But for all this, it is still fairly thin stuff—a thirty-minute sitcom stretched into a (fortunately only) ninety-minute movie.
Let’s just say that, as a film made from a TV sit-com, it’s not as bad as Sex and the City or the unconscionably bad Bewitched, but it’s not as enjoyable as 21 Jump Street, let alone being in the same league as the latest Star Trek. But I should let comparisons go and judge the movie on its own merits, such as they are.
The film opens with a bizarre scene of Eddy and Patsy waking up and, as Eddy layers on her makeup for the day, Patsy injects her face with Botox. Eddy is now pushing sixty and Patsy—well, who knows? They are older and are completely broke, but more desperate to fend off age and keep the party going. Eddy’s career is crumbling until she learns from Patsy that Kate Moss may be looking for a new publicist, and she rushes to a glitterati event where she hopes to corner Kate. But in her bumbling and careless way, she accidentally knocks the super model into the Thames, where her body is never recovered. As the world mourns the tragic loss of this high-profile celebrity, Eddy is charged with murder, and hounded by the press. Unable to face becoming a social pariah (a fate worse than death or jail), Eddy skips the country with Patsy and Saffie’s 13-year-ld daughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), whose credit card will pay their way to the French Riviera. Here Patsy intends to look up a former flame of hers who is now a wealthy pornographer, in the hope of marrying him and solving their financial problems. Well, I can’t tell you more than that without spoiling the ending, but suffice to say with the help of a Some Like It Hot style twist for Patsy, and a “surprise” ending to the Kate Moss plotline that could be seen from about six miles away, things end the way comedies are expected to end.
Eddy and Patsy have a brilliant screen chemistry, Eddy constantly flipping out over everything and pathetically self-pitying—“I’m fat and old and hated and nothing,” she says at one point, sinking into her swimming pool—and Patsy consistently imperturbable with an air of entitled apathy, except when it appears they are out of champagne, though she is able to cope by sipping a bottle of Chanel no. 5. But it’s a kind of one-note joke that keeps playing through the entire film. In the end, I find nothing to like about any of these characters—and that, as I said in the beginning, is no doubt deliberate for the sake of the comedy. But that kind of detachment doesn’t make me feel good. Though it appears at the film’s close that these women will in fact go on, with a new source of funding to help them try to hold on to the youth that left them 40 years ago, I come away seeing only an indictment of a society that creates obsessions like these, without a corresponding sympathy for the obsessed. But maybe, as my wife is sure to say when she reads this, it’s just that I am not the intended audience. So I’ll just say Right, Cheers, thanks a lot, and be on my way, giving this movie two Jacqueline Susann’s and half a Tennyson.