To look back on the last twenty-four years is to recognise the fashion world really hasn’t changed all that much. Outfits are still outrageous, trends are as cyclical as the tides and the pomp and puffery of the PR machine surrounding it is as condescending and self-aggrandising as ever. In that sense, fashion’s immutability makes it just as ripe for parody now as it was back in 1992 when Absolutely Fabulous first aired on the BBC. On the other hand, that the fashion world really hasn’t changed all that much means that any parody done now feels inescapably banal, familiar and all a bit ‘been there, done that’. The challenge of 'breathing new life into something old’ hence proves just as relevant for any pastiche of the fashion world as it does for the world itself, and it’s there that we find ourselves presented with Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie.
The notoriously precarious production road of 'TV shows to films’ has seen a lot of traffic of late. In just the past few years the list of programs that have graduated to the big screen includes: The A-Team, 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, Entourage, The Equaliser, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra and The Man From U.N.C.L.E, as well as a whole bunch of Mission Impossibles and Star Treks, in addition to a Baywatch film now in post-production. More often than not these films fall short of the mark, tending to feel like two and half episodes stuck together, or one longer episode struggling to justify its expanded scope and budget. The best are more like reinterpretations - taking the idea of the TV series and using that as the base for an entirely new adventure (21 Jump Street and Star Trek: Into Darkness being the best of the recent bunch).
24 years after it first aired on the BBC, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is an attempt to follow that trend, throwing its stars Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) back into the limelight of the fashion/PR milieu. The theme of the movie, appropriately, is relevance, with its two leads fighting to stay part of the conversation in a world that has all but left them behind. Physically that means morning rituals of self-applied botox, suction tubes and foetus-blood facial transfusions, whilst professionally it means trying to land a client who still means something to people (sorry Lulu). The solution presents itself in the form of fashion icon Kate Moss (who cameos), but when the attempt to lure her business ends in disaster, Eddie and Patsy find themselves pariahs of the fashion world and fugitives from the law. Does it all come together as a film? In parts, perhaps, but overall the feeling is sadly one of overreach and superfluity.
If anything, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is more like a reunion episode than a film, bouncing from scene to scene with barely a plot in sight, even fewer laughs and a series of fleeting walk-ons from characters you kind of, sort of, maybe remember from back when you watched the show. Barbs about gender reassignment and mixed-race families fizzle by without any real substance and the drunken stumbling/falling routine that defined so much of the original series now seems sadder than it does funny. That’s all part of Saunders' point, of course, that the desire 'for the party to go on forever will', over time, only serve to make fools of its disciples, but the delivery fails to resonate for much of the first sixty minutes. Where the film does shine is when it returns to its absolute core: pushing in tight on intimate, whispered conversations between its two outstanding leads as they heap red-hot private vitriol on everyone else in the room. Eddie’s scatterbrained solipsism and Patsy’s unwavering sex-bomb confidence are as funny now as they were two decades ago, making the film’s insistent focus on slapstick and buffoonery all the more frustrating.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie opened at no.2 in the UK Box Office where it will surely find its homegrown audience more than dutiful to the cause, but more broadly its hard to see this film resonating with either international audiences or moviegoers under the age of 40. When Saunders declared an end to the original TV series after just three short seasons, she did so proudly (and rightly) declaring it better to go out on top rather than to overstay your welcome until you’re politely asked to leave. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie might well have heeded such wisdom.