Nostalgia can be a powerful force, but it’s not all powerful. It can’t turn back time, nor can it stretch what works as a TV sitcom into a worthwhile feature-length film, no matter how many special guest stars sign on. Even if the guest stars include Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie.
Unfortunately, nostalgia is the main reason to see Absolutely Fabulous. The movie, which opens Friday in the United Kingdom and on July 22 in South Florida and the rest of the United States, is based on the beloved 1990s Britcom about hard-drinking, hard-drugging pals Edina (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley). The show, which started life as a skit created by Saunders and her comedy writing partner Dawn French, was a delicious satire that reveled in its characters’ inappropriate behavior and deep lack of self awareness while also skewering the shallow waters of pop culture. It also gleefully provided some of the best drag costumes of all time.
Happily, in 2016, Edina and Patsy are still wonderfully inappropriate: Entering their 60s has not had a chilling effect on their bad behavior or their cravings for Bolly (that’s Bollinger champagne for you Korbel drinkers). Saunders, who wrote the screenplay, reunites almost all of the old gang, including Edina’s disapproving, conservative daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), now divorced with a teenager of her own; her dippy but often on-point mother (June Whitfield), and her incomprehensible assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), whose accent is the only thing more impenetrable than her wardrobe.
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Some things have changed: Edina takes the occasional selfie, while Patsy sneers and swipes on Tinder. But basically the song remains the same: Edina spends more than her PR firm makes. Patsy chain smokes. They drink. Saffron despairs of them both.
There’s only the most free form of plot: Told by a publisher that her life isn’t interesting enough to warrant a memoir, Edina schemes to boost her profile by signing Kate Moss as a client during London Fashion Week. Instead, things go awry, and Edina and Patsy must flee to the south of France, where they hope an old flame of Patsy’s can turn around their fortunes.
There are a few witty visual gags (the way Patsy ingests aspirin on the morning after a bender, for example) and funny call-backs to long running jokes (like the one about Patsy being transgender or the fact that Edina’s most famous client is British singer Lulu). Undoubtedly fans will still enjoy seeing Edina and Patsy wreak havoc on their livers once again — if anything, there’s something even more engaging and defiant about their refusal to bend to societal norms 20-plus years later.
But like the Sex and the City film (and its even more unnecessary sequel), Absolutely Fabulous works best consumed bite-sized; there’s not enough here to warrant a full-length movie. Too much feels like padding (for example, Chris Colfer’s irritating appearance as a hairdresser who says “Take the pain, bitch!” during a comb-out or Rebel Wilson’s ultimately pointless turn as a flight attendant). Revisiting Edina and Patsy wasn’t a bad idea — especially not since there’s even more celebrity nonsense to poke fun at these days — but another short TV season might have been a better format. Fewer guest stars and red carpet shots. More jokes and less filler. Don’t water down our champagne — we’d prefer a shot of vodka in it.
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Cast: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, Jane Horrocks, June Whitfield, Chris Colfer, Jon Hamm, Gwendoline Christie.
Director: Mandie Fletcher.
Screenwriter: Jennifer Saunders.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 90 minutes. Sexual references, drug use. Opens in South Florida theaters July 22.