Seinfeld gets a lot of credit for being “the show about nothing,” but not much happened during Absolutely Fabulous’ multi-decade TV run, either. Generally, PR agent Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and her ambiguously employed yet exceedingly well-connected pal Patsy (Joanna Lumley) would get into some sort of pill-and-booze-fueled trouble, make complete fools of themselves, and learn nothing because Edina’s daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha), was always there to bail them out. Ridiculous outfits were worn, backhanded compliments were exchanged, and a drunken good time was had by all.
That’s basically what happens in the movie, too, which is packed with the hilariously garish outfits—a sequined camouflage coat with a fur collar and a sweater covered in stuffed internet acronyms are but two of the highlights—and deliciously bitchy humor fans have come to expect from Saunders and Lumley. Saunders’ screenplay occasionally brushes up against bigger issues, like the erasure of older women from society, but overall Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is as shallow as a puddle of Dom Pérignon spilled on the bow of a luxury yacht. That’s the joke, you see.
The plot, such as it is, involves Edina and Patsy becoming pariahs among London’s fashion elite after Edina accidentally pushes Kate Moss (as herself) into a river during an absurdly over-the-top soiree for the artist Huki Muki. Being the desperate social climbers that they are, Patsy and Edina find this state of affairs unacceptable (although Edina is flattered when Stella McCartney throws a brick through her window). And that’s before Saffron’s new boyfriend, a police detective, threatens to bring manslaughter charges after Moss’ fashionably emaciated body isn’t found. So Patsy and Edina decide to abscond to the south of France with Edina’s granddaughter Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) in tow, where they are appalled to find themselves lumped in with the dowager set. They make the best of it, though.
Not that these stakes feel real at any point in the film. There are a couple of tearful revelations, but the absurdity of the settings and circumstances render dramatic confrontations by and large inert. And while amusing, a scene where Patsy and Edina try to outrun the cops in a fish truck is one of the least thrilling car chases in recent memory. The film coasts from one-liner to one-liner, open bar to open bar—kind of like our heroines’ lives, actually.
The pleasure of this movie is in its small moments, like the outrageously attired club kids and drag queens who populate the backgrounds of the party scenes. Or the celebrity cameos: There are more than a dozen, from Gwendoline Christie to Joan Collins to Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton. Most importantly, there’s Patsy and Edina’s verbal patter, some of which is uniquely British, but most of which will be funny and familiar to anyone fascinated with the beautiful people of Los Angeles, or New York, or any fashion capital. (“You’ve got to get into fetus blood, darling,” Patsy advises her friend early on, before a party Edina hopes will have “herbal labia cocktails.”)
So yes, amid all the madcap satire there are some missed opportunities, like a Rachel Dolezal parody obsessed with forcing her husband to transition into a woman who isn’t on screen nearly long enough. And if you’re not into celebrity culture, high fashion, or sensory overload, the whole thing might come off as all style and no substance. Just pop a Xanax and go with it, sweetie darling.