There are pleasures to be had from "Absolute Beginners," specifically the cameo performances of David Bowie and Sade, two of the most charismatic rock stars around. Such pleasures, alas, are available on MTV, from the considerably more luxurious vantage of your Barcalounger, and what's left here is not so much a movie as an assault so unpleasant, it leaves you wondering what you could have done to deserve it.
"Absolute Beginners," which is director Julien Temple's notion of an old-fashioned movie musical, consists mostly of a love story. Colin (Eddie O'Connell) is a photographer, the appropriately monickered Crepe Suzette (delicious Patsy Kensit) a fashion designer. Suzette wants to "sell out," in which enterprise she enlists the aid of her corrupt Uncle Henley, dressmaker to the queen; Colin would rather not "sell out" -- he revels in the dinginess of postwar, pre-Carnaby Street London -- but under pressure from Suzette, he ties up with yet another corrupt adult (Bowie).
It is 1958, the era when (as the movie's narration naggingly reminds us) the youth culture was just beginning to feel its oats. Yet a story line involving youth versus age, which might be a simple enough, if unadventurous, spine for a musical, seems beyond Temple and his screen writers, who are intent on complicating their movie with plot involutions, none managed adeptly.
After a full hour, which the audience spends wondering what the heck is going on, "Absolute Beginners" dissolves into a muddle involving a gang of corporadoes (which, needless to say, includes both Uncle and Bowie) intent on gentrifying Colin's neighborhood -- a neighborhood that, in the romantic gibberish this genre is given to, is poor but a virtual beacon of tolerance, where black and white, young and old, poor and poorer live and let live.
You can't criticize a musical for being unrealistic -- that is, after all, the point of making a musical in the first place -- but if you're going to start mucking around with social themes, you ought to give your movie a little bit of an edge. "Absolute Beginners," on the other hand, makes "West Side Story" seem like cine'ma ve'rite'. The movie isn't even allusively about any situation that ever existed in England; rather, it's a fantasy of an England that never was, imbued with the ersatz nostalgia of someone who hasn't done his research.
What "Absolute Beginners" epitomizes, in fact, is a nostalgia for the present clumsily translated into the past. I'm not sure that "selling out" was ever a meaningful concept (is Frank Stella any less an artist because he drives a Ferrari?), but in the '80s, it's surely an elegant nonissue.
At its heart, that's what's so cloyingly phony about "Absolute Beginners" -- it likes the idea that there might have been a time when "selling out" was a real-life decision artists made, but it's so much a part of its own era, it can't even imagine that such a time ever really existed.
All of which might be forgotten if the movie had even a whit of style, but "Absolute Beginners" substitutes garish overstatement for the pulse of life, busyness for verve.
The songs are unmemorable and awkwardly interwoven into the story; the sound track is wall-to-wall noise that overwhelms what's going on on the screen. Visually, the movie is a muddle of cluttered design and vulgar colors; Temple's camera always moves, but never to any purpose, and it's rarely in the right place -- in everything from action sequences to musical numbers to romantic te te-a -te tes, he has an almost unerring instinct for not showing you what you want to see.
You might call him an absolute beginner, too, except there's no point in overrating him, now, is there.
Absolute Beginners is rated PG-13 and contains no offensive material.