Bruce Robinson, 1987
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths
The first time I saw Withnail and I was a few years ago when I began my crusade to see and own every Criterion film ever made. While that battle is still on going, I like to revisit my favorites time and again. I'm a compulsive re-reader and re-watcher and I'm not ashamed. With Withnail and I I'm happy to say that the humor, acting, and charm has held up. However, a couple of years later, as someone who does a lot of drinking and spends a lot of time around other people doing a lot of drinking, it is, if anything, a hell of a lot funnier. Or at least more relevant. And vaguely depressing.
Richard E. Grant plays the titular Withnail. Though he claims to be an actor, this hilarious, disaster of a drunk uses his considerable intelligence and wit to look for booze, drink it, and then deal with the inevitable hang overs instead of acting or going on auditions. Paul McGann costars as his unnamed roommate, a nervous, passive fellow who does much of the same and is in the same profession. While he is at least a little more responsible than Withnail, he follows along with Withnail's schemes with a kind of submissive mania. The two decide they are reaching the pinnacle of unwell and need to take a vacation. They persuade Withnail's urbane, gay Uncle Monty to let them use his country cabin for a time. When they get to the cabin, nothing is as they expected. It is cold, raining, and muddy. They have no food, firewood, or fuel, and little booze. The locals are unfriendly. The situation slowly begins to turn around, but Monty shows up and throws another kink in their plans. What will become of their accidental vacation?
If you've never seen this film, get on it immediately. There are an appalling number of instantly quotable lines and should you meet anyone out at a bar who has seen the film, you will probably make an instant friend. It richly deserves the cult status it has achieved, as well as its Criterion release, which I recommend buying as soon as possible. The documentary, "Withnail and Us" is almost as funny as the film itself.
It's amazing that this was Grant's first feature role and probably his best performance to date. Despite the fact that he is an avowed non-drinker and I believe is allergic to alcohol, he's perfect as Withnail. McGann is also quite good as his roommate, hovering constantly between paranoid, drunk, and outraged.
This is definitely a black comedy, but if you hate British humor, it doesn't really fall within the same boundaries as most films of that category. It's more drinking-because-life-is-miserable-and-I-hate-my-job-or-am-unemployed humor than anything else.
I leave you with two of my favorite scenes: