Withnail & I (1987)
Reviewed on 2011 May 24
When I first watched this, I expected it to be funnier than I first found it, though I enjoyed the dialogue from the beginning. Watching it again I grew to love it more, to the extent that I used sound bites from the movie as various computer alerts. It’s not a typical comedy - parts of it are in fact very sad, when you mull them over - but it’s still a favorite of mine that grew on me with repeated viewings.
Withnail (Richard E. Grant) is an out-of-work actor and one of those people who can’t take charge of his own life, preferring to stay drunk and/or stoned rather than accept the few auditions for things he feels are beneath him. His roommate and only friend in the universe (Paul McGann, and though he’s vital here we never learn his full name; he’s more a narrator and balance of normalcy to the crazed, chemical-fueled Withnail) is not as far down along the ladder as him, but much more time with Withnail and he’ll be pulled along in his undertow. They live in a horrible flat in Camden circa 1969, and are so broke they do things like smear on tubes of those sports creams because they can’t afford heat, though somehow they can always afford a little more booze. Realizing that they need to get out of the place for a bit, Withnail negotiates an invitation to spend a vacation in the country house of his crazy Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). The scenery and the nature of their problems change, but they just changed cantos. The air is a little fresher, but they’re basically still in unemployment hell.
The sparse plot is really just an excuse for a character study and some brilliant dialogue, kind of like one of those necklaces where you really don’t care about the nylon thread holding the thing together: you’re just interested in the beads. I read the trivia discussing other actors who were considered for these roles, and I can’t picture anyone else except either McGann or Grant here. Grant is especially hilarious as the never-sober, bitter Withnail, who was based on a real-life friend of director Bruce Robinson. What’s funny, and a testament to the acting and the script, is that even though Withnail has no real redeeming qualities I can name, you still can’t help but have some affection for the sot. I loved the early scenes between Grant and Ralph Brown (as Danny, the very picture of wretched ’60s excess). The soundtrack was good too; you can never go wrong with Jimi Hendrix.
Three chocolate morsels.