When I was a kid, I received my first exposure to this film. I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was watching Wayne’s World 2 (1993) I was being introduced to the character of Danny (Ralph Brown) who is a drug dealer in Withnail & I. I remember him distinctly because of his great stoner voice. The Wayne’s World movies were never that great, but are childhood cult favorites. That’s a decent way to describe this film as well, except that it’s reach and staying power are greater.
Withnail & I follows Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and his friend Marwood (Paul McGann), or simply the I in the title as he is the one narrating the story. They are both out of work, alcohol drinking, drug taking actors who accidentally go on holiday in 1969 Britain. By that I mean, they go to visit Withnail’s gay uncle Monty who they presume will put them up and does, but not exactly as they planned. They end up in a little cottage with no heating and nothing to eat. They spend most of their time trying to keep warm and find food. I make it sound like a tale of survival with that plot summary and it is, but not a stranded in the jungle survival. Their friendship is what is going to survive or perish. It’s also not a film that is plot driven. The focus is on the two leads and the series of comedic incidents they go through. Those incidents reveal where they stand together now and point towards where each must go after their accidental holiday.
Withnail is beyond the point of no return. He looks like a punk rocker, but is that likable, funny, friend that can act pushy and tough around you, but will turn on you when the slightest amount of pressure is applied to them by others.
Marwood, is a pretty boy with promise in life, but is in love, romantically or otherwise, with someone who is dragging him down. In this case, that person is Withnail. Without knowing it, this is going to be their last hoorah together.
The best scenes in the film come in three flavors: 1. When Withnail or Marwood has one of their brilliant one-liners such as, “Who fucks arses?” and “I want something’s flesh!”, 2. When Withnail sells out his friend, 3. When Marwood grows more backbone. There are many more one-liners then the one’s I listed. Some are yelled at people on the street, others are advice on killing chickens, and one other is a explanation for why the cow about to mow down Marwood is so randy. They are hilarious and people often quote them at the mention of this film or when anybody involved in the production is spotted in real life.
The most honest moments in the film are numbers 2 and 3, where Withnail turns on Marwood and when Marwood stands up for himself. Early in the film the two go to a bar. Marwood uses perfume to try and hide the stench from his shoes. This gets him called a homosexual by a nut job in the bar who proceeds to confront the two. He goes for Withnail and in no time at all, Withnail is explaining that what ever is going on between the man and Marwood has nothing to do with him and why don’t they settle it in the street. Marwood is clearly hurt but he bolts from the bar with Withnail and continues to follow him to their accidental holiday.
The best of number 3 comes late in the film after Marwood has nearly been raped by Monty. Marwood found out that Withnail spewed nasty lies about him in order to get the cabin they have been living in. Lies that all but made explicit that Marwood was fair game for Monty. After telling Monty off from an attempted rape, Marwood confronts Withnail. He makes it clear to Withnail that no justification explains away that he is standing naked in front of him and hurt beyond repair.
It’s these moments that take this film from a childhood favorite to a moving and funny story of two people at a crossroads. That’s what makes this film have the staying power that it does. It’s the reason that what starts as bathroom humor becomes something I am proud to recommend. In the future, I will probably even highly recommend it. This is one that can be re-watched to point of memorization and still feel it is speaking to the child with an important look at adulthood. Rather than the film losing meaning by rote. I knew Grant was good from L.A. Story (1991), but I wouldn’t have expected this kind of performance from him. I’ll probably never watch one of the Wayne’s World films again, but I will watch this one many more times.