Shelf of Shame: Comedy Edition – Withnail & I (1987)

Shelf of Shame Comedy

WITHNAIL & I (1987)
Bruce Robinson’s crudely shot but deeply personal meditation on friendship and alcoholism follows a pair of unemployed actors living in squalor and taking an impromptu trip to the English countryside to continue an ongoing avoidance of any actual responsibility. Richard E. Grant (in his film debut) stars as the troubled and self-absorbed Withnail with an at-first insufferable attention-craving desperation that soon reveals itself an even deeper performance symptomatic of an already-broken young man on a downward spiral, while Paul McGann’s “…& I” lends a straight-man backbone and nervousness that makes you wonder why he ever puts up with his so-called best friend that never did anything for him. But several moments help you realize the two deserve each other, as they con and booze their way into staying a weekend at the country home of Withnail’s affable if overbearing Uncle Monty (a hilarious Richard Griffith). Almost totally directionless, the pair seem content to drink their young lives into an eternal stupor, especially the ego-maniacal but practically useless Withnail who can’t help but drag his would-be buddy down into his even deeper and darker squalor. Robinson’s road/buddy flick has since achieved immense cult status in England, with some crossover in the U.S. thanks to the chemistry of the leads and constant stream of memorable dialogue, best doled out by spaced-out drug dealer Danny (a brilliant Ralph Brown), an overly self-medicated hippie philosopher of sorts who speaks to the disappearance of the 1960s, a decade he and others actively cherish but dread as it winds down. Robinson obviously made a film about people and times he knew all too well, reminiscing about the people and era he based it on (in a retrospective documentary on the Criterion Collection disc) with a clear mix of fondness and melancholy. The film speaks to and for a universal generation of youth looking for the right path or every excuse not to walk through moments of hilarity that often conceal a lingering sadness.

Grade: B+

Does it belong on your Shelf of Shame? Yes. At first glance, I’d go the other way, but this one resonates pretty quickly the more you watch it. Surely an acquired taste, it remains a cult classic for many, and you’ll likely see why during a first viewing.

  • SOME LIKE IT HOT (greatest comedy ever? need to see more Billy Wilder)
  • MEATBALLS (set Bill Murray’s film career in motion, created a legend)
  • A SHOT IN THE DARK (many including my dad call the best Pink Panther)
  • SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (need to see more Preston Sturges)
  • MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (seen the other Python, gotta complete it)
  • EDDIE MURPHY RAW (is this the best standup movie ever?)
  • MIDNIGHT RUN (always stared at me in video stores)
  • THE APARTMENT (again with the Wilder, plus a best picture winner I haven’t seen)
  • WITHNAIL & I (gotta represent the cult classics, one I just keep hearing about)
  • SILVER STREAK (always wanted to see a Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder flick)