When it comes time to compile my list of the great lost movies of the twentieth century, Withnail and I will be securely perched at the top of the 1980s heap. It’s a comedy of desperation, set in London at the grotty close of the Swinging Sixties, about two young actors caught in career limbo and scratching to find a way out. Since the world appears uninterested in them, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) go on a drunken bender that encompasses run-ins with tavern louts, loopy conversations with a soft-spoken drug dealer named Danny (Ralph Brown) and a trip to the Lake District, where Marwood must fend off the advance of Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths).
Though it’s often outrageously funny, Withnail and I is never a comfortable film: Withnail and Marwood are facing their thirties with virtually nothing to show for their efforts, and the decay of Swinging London mirrors their bafflement and frustration. Writer-director Bruce Robinson knew about all of this firsthand: after making his screen debut in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production of Romeo and Juliet (some of Uncle Monty’s come-on lines were apparently inspired by Zeffirelli’s attempts to seduce the young actor), Robinson saw his acting prospects dwindle and eventually turned to screenwriting, finally breaking through in 1984 when Roland Joffe directed his script for The Killing Fields. The bits of theater lore in Withnail and I have a lived-in feel, and the details add up: the references to Hamlet start out as a running joke — actors who cannot act are chomping at the bit to play a prince who cannot act — but build to a closing scene that plays like a long, sad meditation on frustrated talent and wasted potential.
As the title suggests, the film belongs to Withnail, a mad genius type whose arrogance is forever balanced over an abyss of insecurity and rage, and Grant plays him brilliantly — all forehead and mad-eyed stare, constantly ruminating to himself and Marwood about the indignities of life. Grant’s over-the-top performances in Withnail and Robinson’s next film, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, launched him on an international film career; ditto Griffiths, who currently balances stage and screen work with appearances as the fearsome Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films. After making a splash on the art-house circuit with Withnail and How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Robinson found himself stymied once again. After aiming for the box office and missing with Jennifer Eight, a vapid 1992 serial-killer flick, Robinson returned to script work and even a bit of acting with a surprise appearance as a Syd Barret-type rocker in Still Crazy (1998).
Though it flopped upon release in 1987, Withnail and I has built enough of a cult following to garner itself a deluxe Criterion DVD edition and a Web site that includes a drinking game in which you must match Withnail gulp for gulp — not a pastime for the faint of heart. Withnail fans can quote favorite lines at the drop of a cravat: “I want the finest wines available and I want them now!” “If I dose you, you’ll know you’ve been dosed.” “All I have now are vintage wine and memories.” “I want something’s flesh!” Michael Myers is apparently a fan: Wayne’s World 2 features Ralph Brown, whose performance as a brain-fried roadie is essentially a continuation of his work as Danny.
Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann played off each other so brilliantly that it was puzzling to see they never again co-starred in a film. Until now, that is. Via the estimable Dennis Cozzalio, I see that Grant and McGann re-teamed for a 12-minute film called Always Crashing in the Same Car, a short, sharp shock you can watch in its entirety at the McGann Brothers site. Somebody better find these guys a way to reunite in a full-length feature film, right now.