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NPR Arts & Life

The Enduring 'AbFab' Picks Up Right Where It Boozily Left Off

Patsy (Joanna Lumley) and Edina (Jennifer Saunders) in <em>Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.</em>
Patsy (Joanna Lumley) and Edina (Jennifer Saunders) in <em>Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.</em>

Making an Absolutely Fabulous movie in 2016, over 20 years after the cheerfully vulgar British sitcom became a cult sensation, seems both absurdly late and entirely in keeping with the spirit of the show. After all, Edina "Eddy" Monsoon and Patricia "Patsy" Stone, a pair of unrepentant boozers on the fringes of the fashion world, have never known cultural cachet. It only follows, then, that a big-screen version of their exploits would not be particularly hip or in-demand, but a continuation of the bawdy obliviousness that have made them such a treasure over the years. They are perpetually out of time, which in their case is another way of saying "timeless."

"Sixty is the new 40," Eddy declares, bridging the gap between the show's premiere in late 1992 and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, in which she and Patsy want nothing more than to "keep the party going." This ungainly, catch-as-catch-can feature isn't a comfortable expansion of the series, but there's a brightness and spontaneity to it that forgives its many lapses, because each new scene brings the possibility of a filthy one-liner or a bizarre comic setpiece. Here's a movie that gives you Jon Hamm, as himself, shuddering over memories of the "English rose" who deflowered him and a club full of drag queens doing a karaoke chorus of "At Seventeen." Resistance is futile.

Leading a principal cast that has stayed with AbFab from the beginning, creator/star Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley return as Eddy and Patsy, respectively, two women still clinging to a lifestyle they cannot afford. With Eddy's PR business dwindling to just a few D-list clients — all of whom are angry over her neglect — her credit cards are "broken" and she doesn't have any cash, which is such a foreign concept to Patsy that she refers to it as "hand money." Nonetheless, the two wake up hungover every morning, dutifully self-administer Botox injections and liposuction treatments, and head out in search of the next gold mine.

After hearing word that Kate Moss (also appearing, gamely, as herself) is looking for representation, Eddy crashes an exclusive party to corner her perspective client, but winds up bumping her off a balcony and into the Thames. With Britain's greatest fashion icon missing and presumed dead, Eddy and Patsy endure the indignities of coach class and fly to the French Riviera, simultaneously fleeing justice and gaining new opportunities to pursue a big score. They don't have a plan. Their thinking seems to be that if they keep rubbing elbows with the elite, something will come up. Perhaps requiring a fake mustache.

Saunders' script accommodates AbFab veterans like Julia Sawalha as Eddy's scolding daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), June Whitfield as her blinkered mother, and Jane Horrocks as the flighty Bubble, who's introduced wearing an outfit of inflatable hashtags. None of these characters are particularly well-served, given how much Eddy and Patsy are on the move, and Saunders' approach to screenwriting isn't all that dissimilar to the merry, improvised bungling that get her characters through life. The increased scale of an Absolutely Fabulous movie allows Saunders and company to trample through scenic locales and roll out cameos by Moss, Hamm, Rebel Wilson, and other recognizable faces, but it mostly sticks to basics.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Saunders and Lumley are a wonderful team — Eddy constantly seeking to improve her status and salve her insecurities, Patsy casually devouring all the pills and champagne she can get — and they have a particular gift for the "ooooooo" laugh, gags that pleasantly shock without crossing the line. Their characters' refusal to change as the world trends past them is as funny now as it was in the early '90s; nothing will stop Patsy from smoking cigarettes in public, for example, only now she calls it "vaping." Twenty years from now, 80 might be the new 60 for Saunders and Lumley's lovable creations. Little will have changed. The party keeps going.

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