A prime-time sitcom that rolled its eyes at family values and reveled in the joys of middle-aged, unattached women behaving badly, Jennifer Saunders’ “Absolutely Fabulous” was a pretty rare bird when it tumbled into U.K. living rooms in 1992. Nearly a quarter of a century later, it still is: Younger female writers like Lena Dunham and Sharon Horgan may owe a degree of their edge to Saunders’ klutzy trailblazing, but there’s still nothing quite as anarchically feminine as “Ab Fab” on our TV screens. The same goes twice over in the male-dominated realm of big-screen comedy, which makes “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” a fresher prospect than such a long-belated spinoff deserves to be: No other summer release, after all, is going to give us a drag-revue singalong to “At Seventeen,” indelibly describe a jacuzzi as “a smoothie of old sperm,” or divulge the secret of Jon Hamm’s deflowering. This short, bright, lovably shambolic outing does all that with Bollinger-soaked one-liners to spare. It’s not great cinema, or even peak “Fabulous,” but for a post-Brexit Britain in dire need of some cheering up, it more than does the job.
In the U.S., Fox Searchlight will be counting on an adoring Anglophile crowd of female and gay fans to bolster a more limited release strategy. Though TV director Mandie Fletcher has credibly opened proceedings out from the show’s studio roots — complete with slick action set pieces along the French Riviera — this is not a film for the uninitiated. Converts know it takes time to cultivate affection for the least savory attitudes and antics of terminally shallow publicist Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Saunders) and her sponging boozehound BFF Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley). Everyone has at least one “difficult” friend whose semi-sociopathic misbehavior can’t be defended to the rest of the social circle; fans should embrace Eddy, Patsy and their cheerfully sketchy movie debut in a similar spirit of unwavering pardon.
Following on from the show’s increasingly elaborate, globe-trotting special episodes, “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” immediately separates itself from the sitcom’s domestic focus with an opening sequence set at London Fashion Week: As they bumblingly crash a Giles Deacon runway show, we see the gruesome twosome pratfall before one acidic punchline is uttered. Such slapstick won’t appease critics who took issue with the show’s later series for wringing a growing number of laughs from its stars’ contrasting gifts for physical shtick. (Saunders is funniest in a state of collapse; Lumley, when standing stock-still.) But a human core is visible amid the hijinks. Even at its most absurd or grotesque, “Absolutely Fabulous” has always been rather poignantly about one independent, little-loved career woman trying to muddle through life: Edina Monsoon may well be the least exemplary feminist icon in television history, and so she again proves here.
Now pushing 60, Eddy scarcely has her life in any more order than she did at 40. Overweight, over-inebriated and grossly neglectful of her PR clients, she gets a glimmer of self-awareness when her incoherently typed memoirs are flatly rejected by an editor at “Random Penguin” publishers: “Your life may be worth living, but it’s not worth reading,” he smirks. Lesser women might take this as a cue for global travel or spiritual enlightenment: For Eddy, it’s a mandate to surround herself with more varnished celebrity. When news leaks that supermodel Kate Moss is seeking new representation, our heroine rushes to enlist her at an elite riverfront party — only to accidentally send Her Skinniness tumbling into the Thames, never to surface.
To borrow a meme Eddy would only pretend to recognize, that escalates quickly. As a nation mourns the loss of Moss — an ongoing source of priceless jabs at Britain’s melodrama-loving media — Eddy is pursued by police, Twitter trolls and Stella McCartney alike, as her ultra-square daughter Saffron (an underused Julia Sawalha) and nascently hip granddaughter Lola (appealing newcomer Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) look on in bewilderment. Naturellement, the obvious solution for fair-weather Francophiles Eddy and Patsy is to skip the country, seeking refuge among the Cannes jet set and encountering the alternating delights and indignities of budget airline travel, gender-fluid weddings, senior-citizen sex tourism, three-wheeled car chases, and so on and so forth. Structure is as much anathema to Saunders’ writing style as it is to her alter ego’s entire lifestyle; this is the comedic equivalent of paintball, and when her splatter-shots land, they do so to raucous effect.
It’s hard to think of any other recent film with a star-cameo contingent that runs quite as comprehensively from A- to Z-list. As everyone from Joan Collins to Jon Hamm to Perez Hilton checks in, this neon romp might seem at risk of overcrowding — particularly with much of the show’s regular ensemble, including June Whitfield as Eddy’s dotty twinset-and-pearls mom, Jane Horrocks as Eddy’s daffy PA and 1960s pop pixie Lulu as her oldest and most disgruntled client, also reporting for duty. Still, a personal appearance by the Queen herself would do little to distract from the joyous, film-driving chemistry between Saunders and Lumley, two effervescent pros who fit each other as comfortably as a sensible pair of flat-heeled shoes — the kind on which “Ab Fab’s” longstanding, awesomely taste-defying costume designer Rebecca Hale (having the time of her life here with an upgraded budget) must long ago have issued a blanket ban.
“Why does she stay with you?” young Lola asks Eddy about Patsy, whose loyalty holds as fast as her Botox-pumped face. “Because it’s bloody good fun,” comes the incredulous reply. Sometimes bloody good fun is enough. It’s as good a reason as any for making this sunny, silly rallying cry for irresponsibility, and a better one still for watching it.