Monday, June 01, 2009

Movie Log: Withnail and I

Every so often, an entire movie sails right over my head. It's almost bracing when it does, a reminder that the world is larger and more complicated than I thought, so there's a tiny bit of back-handed enjoyment in that feeling, even if there wasn't any in the movie itself.

Withnail and I cleared the top of my skull by a good ten feet; it was a new record. My wife is of the opinion that it's a lousy, unpleasant movie, entirely about a couple of alcoholic self-obsessed idiots, and that there is no joy at all, of any kind, to be found in it. I was a bit kinder to it: I can see, faintly, that there are people who would enjoy Withnail and I. But I am definitely not one of them.

We nearly turned this movie off several times in the first half-hour, and exchanged a number of pained grimaces and sarcastic comments at each other, but we had been informed -- by Netflix, among others -- that this movie was a comedy, and so we were willing to wait for the funny stuff to begin.

It's a week later, and I'm still waiting. I'm beginning to suspect one must be British, an actor, and able to remember 1969 -- or, at the very least, two of the above -- to get any real enjoyment from Withnail and I.

"I" is played by Paul McGann; IMDB informs me (as the movie did not) that his character's name is Marwood. Withnail is his roommate, played by the even-gaunter-than-usual Richard E. Grant. They are actors -- out-of-work actors, possibly unemployable actors, but definitely actors in their own minds -- living in horrible lodgings in a grotty part of London in 1969. They're also devoted drunks, if not downright alcoholics, and aren't against using other drugs that happen to come their way. Withnail is of the decayed aristocracy, while Marwood is firmly middle class -- and I suspect much of what was supposed to be funny in this movie was based in the British class system as it existed in that day. Every so often I could detect a reference -- such as the fact that Withnail inevitably toasts by saying "chin-chin" -- without having any clue as to its significance.

So Marwood and Withnail are poverty-stricken and tormented -- sick of London and of their lives -- and try to wrangle a vacation somewhere else. They do manage to get the keys to a cottage in the Lake District owned by Withnail's Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths, not quite as large as he would later become, but still very impressive), who turns out to be a particular kind of British gay stereotype.

The cottage is dark, dim and dingy, with food and firewood hard to obtain. The locals are dull and hostile. The weather is similar. But, more importantly, Marwood and Withnail are precisely who they are no matter where they are -- they've completely studied the roles of themselves, and are word-perfect on their lines and business, no matter what else goes on.

Withnail and I is a rambling movie; the scenes tend to keep going too long, in that low-budget movie way, as if another set-up would have been just too much for the budget. The rest of the cast is made up of oddballs -- both rural and metropolitan -- whose personalities are as nuanced and precise as that great whoopsie Uncle Monty. There are those who love it to death; it's a cult movie whose devotees swear by it. But anyone my age or younger, particularly if American, would have to be massively interested in the roar of the greasepaint (or is that the smell of the crowd?) and a deeply devoted Anglophile to get much out of it.

1 comment:

Spine said...


"We've gone on holiday, by mistake."

"I've only had a few ales."

Not even a smirk?

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