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When Jennifer Saunders was penning the script for Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the dark-haired Ab-Fabber apparently wasn’t thinking about anything outside her own (or the series’) bubble. Saunders, who also wrote the beloved series and plays the ever-sloshed, irresponsible Eddie, must have been aiming for the lightly transgressive when shaping the characters who are gay, transgender, or of color. And though the first two are merely stereotyped, the treatment of the black teenager in the film won’t go over well with the non-racist populace of Obama’s America.
Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness) is the 13-year-old daughter of the always-exasperated Saffy (Julia Sawalha), herself the daughter/minder of Eddie who was brought into the world in Ab Fab’s fifth season, and whose father is Ugandan. Among the indignities she’s dealt in the film is her great-grandmother (June Whitfield) shuddering when another character says, “We’re all black inside.” It’s a joke that Eddie and Patsy (Joanna Lumley, the more gifted physical comedian here) “gave [Lola] to housekeeping” at a hotel when they had better things to do. And, most egregious, when a white stylist (gay, of course) starts roughly tugging on Lola’s natural locks with the aim of straightening them out, she yelps and is told, “Take the pain, bitch.”
Take the pain, bitch. To a child.
Before you alarm the Hypersensitivity Police, let me say that Saunders fails Lola in general, unsuccessfully drawing her as a logical character and instead playing puppeteer, having her make baffling decisions such as running off with Eddie and Patsy despite knowing that they’re just using her for her father’s credit cards. (They suddenly find themselves broke.) Lola initially seems to be very much Saffy’s daughter, but then the smart girl goes rogue.
On to the reason the trio runs off, or the rough sketch that is Saunders’ story: On the night of a high-profile fashion show, Eddie, a publicist, attempts to snag fresh free agent Kate Moss (playing herself). Instead, she bumps her into the River Thames. Now targeted by police and shunned by her society, Eddie and Patsy run off to the South of France to find a new world in which to indulge, first via Lola’s funds, but ultimately through various shenanigans.
Mandie Fletcher, who’s mostly worked in television, directs this misguided mess, which is full of fat jokes, fart jokes, and pratfalls that are less inspired than those that were taken at the series’ best. The bulk of the film is broad, with scenes of the duo getting high or Patsy self-injecting morning Botox passing for humor. If you’re attentive, there is verbal wit to be found, such as Eddie saying that she’s “practicing my mindlessness” or a character remarking, “The six finest words in the English language” after someone speaks in French. But the audience may be too busy looking for the next guffaw to catch these sly gems.
While Saunders’ Eddie here does little more than moan about her bloat—repeatedly, with other characters taking potshots as well—Lumley continues to show off her comedic dexterity. Her face lends Patsy a fast-moving succession of entertaining expressions (particularly when she’s attempting to seduce a wealthy old dowager), and she’s allowed to be just fabulous instead of self-degrading.
The appeal of the pair has always been that although they’re great at strategizing about getting the most from minimal effort, they’re also dim when it comes to reality. One of the film’s funniest moments comes when the card-happy Patsy can’t think of the word “cash,” instead gesturing and eventually coming up with “hand money.” But Ab Fab’s best drunken years are behind it, and this film—with a story that just kind of stops—is a poor and sobering attempt at a bone-throw to fans. Take the pain, bitches.
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema, Landmark Bethesda Row, AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, and Angelika Film Center.