Withnail & I
Director: Bruce Robinson
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths
In terms of razor sharp witticisms and bizarrely black comedy, I doubt any other film quite reaches the same heights – or, rather, depths – as Withnail & I. This is a film that has inspired some truly rabid followers, preaching its gospel. Even before I started purposely watching movies from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I had seen this one because a friend of mine just wouldn’t shut up about it. “You’ll love it, OMG, it’s hysterical, BEST MOVIE EVER!”
Withnail (Grant) and his friend, the “& I” from the title (McGann), are unemployed actors living in 1969 London. Their apartments are a mess, they don’t work, they don’t eat, instead spending their time drinking and complaining and developing a disdain for the common man. Fed to the gills with their dire circumstances, they decide to ask Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Griffiths) to borrow his country cottage to “get away from it all.” As soon as they get to the country, shenanigans ensue, and they realize they are hardly any better off there than they are in town.
This is comedy, to be sure, but it is a dire black-hearted comedy. I’m hit or miss when it comes to black comedy, and even with a number of the gags in this film, I’m hit or miss. There were moments when I was legitimately laughing, and moments when I felt nothing but uncomfortable at what was supposed to be a funny situation. So I agree with the legions in terms of this being a funny film, but I was not continually amused.
I watched this off of Turner Classic Movies, where Anthony Bourdain picked it during his stint as guest programmer. He recommended watching it with the subtitles on, which isn’t a bad idea. The dialogue is so fast and so sharp, subtitles would help to catch every single joke. I don’t think I would be overstating things if I said this is one of the best dialogue films ever made. Plot, characters, I’m not so sure, but I really can’t argue with the brilliant wordplay.
My biggest problem with the film is its fundamental theme, and one that is more a personality trait of my own than that of the movie. The characters are repugnant. Withnail is so wretched, so horrible, so egotistical, that it’s immensely difficult to like him. Sure, he says amusing things and he does bizarrely fascinating things, but he’s not likeable. Anything but. He’s written that way, though; he’s SUPPOSED to be that way. I understand that, but it doesn’t make me like him. Everything he does gets on my nerves, from his constant complaining to his inability to eat any solid food. More than anything, though, I am immensely turned off by his total and complete desire to run his life into the ground. He has no redeeming qualities, and is incapable of making a decision that will better his life. He turns down a job his agent offers him because it’s the understudy for a role in a play he doesn’t like. Dude – stop being so damn picky! You’re going nowhere fast! Take the opportunity! Perhaps it’s because I’m a teacher, but it really bothers me to watch people squander their lives, which is exactly what Withnail is all about.
Contrasted with Withnail is “I,” his best friend, played by McGann. He’s the main character and we occasionally get his narration on certain situations. He provides something of a contrast to Withnail, and possesses some wherewithal when it comes to distinguishing bad from good, but not enough for my liking. I like him more than Withnail, but not significantly more. He’s not as shitty a decision-maker as Withnail, but that isn’t saying much. Why was he friends with Withnail in the first place? He seems constantly upset and aggravated by the actions of Withnail (as was I), and yet, he chooses to live his life with him. Why? I just kept asking myself, “Why are you friends with him?” The film never satisfactorily answers that question for me.
I will never love this film. It’s too distasteful for me. Horrible people running their promise into the ground? No thanks. However, I do not think this is a bad film in any way. It is indeed funny, and the dialogue is terrific. It’s amusing, I’ll give it that, but it’s also frustrating. And for that reason, it’s not remotely close to my taste.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10