' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Withnail and I (1987)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Withnail and I (1987)

As I watched Bruce Robinson’s beloved British comedy “Withnail and I” (1987), my American mind kept flashing back to an American comedy, “Kicking and Screaming” (1995). That’s because both movies involve aimless young men whose dread about getting on with their lives gets release, so to speak, in the form of drinking. And yet, despite so much dyspeptic dialogue that is the hallmark of Noah Baumbach, the latter ultimately reveals itself to be partly sunny more than mostly cloudy whereas Robinson’s film, honoring perhaps the English climate, is mostly cloudy – nay, rainy, very rainy, very rainy and grey, as evoked in the characters’ country retreat which is like the wicked kin of the characters in “Local Hero” getting stranded in the fog. Maybe this ultimate divergence can be traced to the time, seeing as how “Kicking and Screaming” was released in a decade that went Boom while “Withnail and I” might have been released in the 80s but was set at the end of the 60s, the very end, as the glories of what that decade had promised were fading from view, and had, in a sense, receded all the way by the time 1987 would have rolled around.

“Withnail and I” opens with the I of its title, Marwood (Paul McGann), bursting into his flat after sitting in a café and jealously watching another patron chow down on an egg sandwich, the basics of life which in his unemployed actorly lifestyle he can barely attain, ranting and raving as he violently comes down from some epic high. As it happens, that’s the movie in capsule, coming down from a high. As the movie begins, King Curtis’s cover of “Whiter Shade of Pale” plays, which, I only learned afterwards, was the saxophonist’s last live recording, intrinsically setting the mood. These characters are stuck in the death rattle of this madness into which their lives have sunk, trying to stave it off any way they can, an idea which a consistently committed Richard E. Grant wrings maximum hysterical terror from when his nigh unhinged Withnail guzzles lighter fluid.

The apartment, with its dirty dishes piled high in the sink, feels infested, and both Withnail and I seem to be itching to crawl out of their own skin. Their remedy to this is r&r in the countryside, staying at the cottage of Withnail’s Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), the paranoia of these urban dwellers only amplifies, glimpsed in a scene where Grant cradling a shotgun in bed and blasting a hole in the ceiling makes a comical argument for the necessity of firearms training. Their facing the prospect of killing a chicken, meanwhile, suggests Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo were plunked down in Thoreau’s Walden. Nature provides no respite to inner-frenzy.

Grant, of course, is the taller of two, and McGann is often positioned in shots behind him, hurrying to keep up, as if he is being carried along in Withnail’s wake, a sensation Grant furthers with a performance that is not so much charismatic as delirious, accentuated by the burnout makeup design, and reminding me of Wayne Knight’s observation that his Newman character on “Seinfeld”, while inherently slovenly, actually viewed himself as princely. Indeed, when Withnail is wolfing down a literal plate of food with a glass of wine in the passenger seat of a car, he looks like a delirious prince. And if I is delirious too, the movie eventually becomes about his need to re-embrace reality, which only happens toward the end, after he finally lands an acting job, freshens up his unkempt appearance, and takes a walk in the rain with Withnail, not quite able to tell his friend goodbye but leaving him behind anyway.

The movie ends as Withnail recites a soliloquy from “Hamlet” with zoo animals as his only audience. There were also Shakespeare overtones in “Birdman”, another movie about a fading actor, though that movie could never completely relinquish its noble view of the profession. “Withnail and I” can and does. This conclusion is as sad a moment as cinema has ever produced, equating the passage of time, the ending of eras, as being left out in the rain.

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