Monday, July 27, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Withnail and I

Withnail & I (1987) 10/10
Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) are unemployed actors in 1969, living in drunken squalor. Overwhelmed by London, Marwood persuades Withnail to convince his wealthy uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to loan them the key to his summer cottage so they can take a holiday. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson.

This movie is absolutely deranged. Surreal, appalling, hilarious, extraordinary, and deranged.

For ten years now, I've spent time on the IMDb message boards. One of its joys is learning about movies from real experts on the subject. At some point in my participation, I noticed that Withnail & I, a movie I had never heard of, kept showing up on people's lists of favorites. This is exactly the way to find great movies; I am rarely disappointed.

Almost everyone describes this movie in terms of the holiday that Withnail and Marwood take, but the funniest stuff may well be the long sequence before they leave London; their spin into insane despair that drives them to Monty. Withnail has to be pushed pretty hard to visit relatives, and he is; by no money for food, a filthy home that may well have alien creatures growing in the sink, and a relatively normal flatmate nonetheless driven to "the fear" by cold, drink, hunger, drugs, and city life. None of which sounds even remotely funny (and surely living it would not be), which is why Richard E. Grant's performance is nothing short of brilliant. The movie is held together by his posed, abrasive mania; at the point where he's rubbing his body head to toe in Deep Heat because they're cold and haven't paid the heating bill, half-naked, green-skinned, shouting for BOOZE!, you know you're on a wild ride and it's time to just let go and let it take you away.

The actors are funny, the dialogue is hilarious, but the vision is relentlessly dark. And really, I enjoy this; these are young fools carrying a strange combination of cynicism and idealism that in no way equips them for real life. At the country home, everything appears to be falling apart; they still have no food, the rain is ceaseless, the neighbors are rude. When Monty arrives, suddenly the countryside is green and beautiful; it's as though these guys have brought their own clouds with them. They're very funny clouds, but I so admire Robinson's commitment to his vision; he's not sweetening these men or this situation to make it more palatable. In fact, what makes this movie so great is how entirely unpalatable it all is.

Quite simply, any movie with the line "Don't threaten me with a dead fish" is a movie worth watching.