Withnail and I (1987) may well be one of the greatest comedy films ever made. In recent years the comedy genre has been plagued with weak scripts and subpar acting. Directors and writers alike appear to have largely forgotten the art of comedy. A genre that once had depth, brilliant writing, and strong dialogue and stories, nowadays is often dependent upon bathroom humor and actors playing tired stereotypes. It seems as though comedy took a turn for the worst in the early 2000’s. Priorto that, innovative comedy classics were being made with relative frequency; films like Rushmore (1998), Raising Arizona (1987), Spinal Tap (1984), and Annie Hall (1977), to name a few. Fast forward to today and the most popular comedies are films like, Ted (2012) and Neighbors II: Sorority Rising (2016) which forgo any real storytelling or thematic structure. They are the fast food equivalent of film making: high carb, quick and easy to make and absent of any and all substance. On the other hand, Withnail and I is a perfect manifestation of what comedy can be. The film has a brilliant script, memorable and incredibly quotable dialogue, a phenomenal soundtrack and unforgettable characters, who, despite (or because of) their quirks and idiosyncrasies, you would love to drink a pint with.
The plot follows two men, Withnail played by Richard E. Grant and “I” (we never learn his full name) played by Paul McGann who narrates the film. They have a rather contentious relationship, yin to the other’s yang. Withnail’s predominant emotion is outrage. He directs his venom at almost every aspect of day to day life, from articles in the daily newspaper to the cost of bread. On the other hand “I” is more reasonable and restrained with only the occasional bout of paranoia. He puts up with Withnail’s outrageous behavior and seems to need his company. In turn, Withnail needs an audience for his theatrical antics. It is the quintessential codependent relationship.
They live in a dingy apartment in a condemned part of London. Their living conditions and lifestyle are bohemian to say the least. Both are aspiring actors looking for work and therefore “on the dole.” What little money they have goes to booze and drugs. In many ways the film is about the waning days of the 1960’s, in which the hope and promise of the Age of Aquarius has dimmed considerably. As Danny (played by Ralph Brown), an extravagant drug dealer and urban philosopher articulates, “London is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees.” Withnail and I are two such refugees, marooned in an increasingly hostile society in an unsustainable lifestyle. The squalor of their surrounds coupled with their inherent inability to cope make for much hilarity. In a way the film can be seen as a tragedy: two men battling against their own natures, unable to adapt to a world that’s changing too quickly around them. This fact actually lends itself to the comedic elements of the film because, as is oft reported, comedy is simply tragedy plus time.
With no money, overdue on the rent and no real job prospects, they decide to take a small vacation at the country cottage of Withnail’s Uncle Monty, played with wonderful zest by Richard Griffiths. They make the trip in a barely operational old Jaguar. As they pull away from their row house, a wrecking ball commences to knock down a building just up the street while Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower blasts from the car’s radio. This iconic scene is a symbolic reminder of the changing times. From the very start their “vacation” is doomed to fail. The idea that leaving the city will somehow change their predicament or improve their negative outlook is, in retrospect, quite naïve and their road trip quickly confirms this. They leave the city in a cloud of euphoria, exhaust smoke and Withnail’s shouted taunts at pedestrians. But once the city is behind them, rather than being welcomed by lush and verdant countryside and pastoral views, they encounter lashing wind and rain that obliterates any beauty that might be just beyond their fogged up windows. Comedy ensues as “I” drives the Jaguar down dark country roads while Withnail, complaining bitterly of a massive hangover, attempts to navigate by peering through his side of the windshield which has the only working wiper!
Somehow they manage to make it to the cottage where they immediately discover that rustic country life does not suit their London sensibilities. Their priorities do not change one iota in their new surroundings: they complain bitterly about the cold and damp and embark once again on their perpetual quest for alcohol and just enough sustenance to allow them to keep drinking. This is comedic gold: put characters who are out of their depth and negative by nature in a corner and poke them with a stick. In fact, the film has many slapstick scenes, such as when they try to shoot fish in a stream with an antique shotgun or have an encounter with a randy bull who, as Withnail says, “…wants to get down there and have sex with those cows.” Or a truly hilarious scene in which they enter a gentile tea shop in a tiny village and drunkenly demand the “…finest wines known to humanity” as the elderly customers react with predicable shock and horror. Though the film has many slapstick elements, the dialogue is quick and articulate. Even if the film were entirely shot in one room with only the two main characters, it would be incredibly fun to watch.
Bruce Robinson, who wrote and directed the film, does an excellent job conveying his protagonists’ rants, hysterical outbursts, irrational terrors, paranoid episodes and drunken soliloquies. His success may be in large part due to the fact that he based the film on a similar friendship he had with a man named Vivian MacKerrell, an unemployed actor reminiscent of the Withnail character. Similar to works from writers like Charles Bukowski, comedy and tragedy are a volatile mixture that work best when based on one’s own experiences. The film is full of wonderful character actors including Michael Elphick playing the local poacher, Daragh O’Malley playing the homophobic pub customer, and wonderful scenes by the previously mentioned Richard Griffiths and Ralph Brown. Undoubtedly all of these characters share some characteristics with people Bruce Robinson has met or heard about over the years. All of them, even the seemingly unimportant ones, have depth and possess the small quirky details that give fictional characters life. I believe that Withnail and I is one of the best tragicomedies ever made due to its witty repartee, hilarious sight gags, outrageous characters, numerous quotable lines, and very British mix of absurdity and humanity.