Oh, those drunken moments in our lives. The times that, depending on one’s recollection of the events, can either result in lively revelry, inflated confidence, embarrassment or self-doubt just to name a few. While most of us have fond memories of particular times when we were at the mercy of an alcohol fueled haze, we can also recall those who made being drunk an art form in itself. The friends who drank booze as if it was water and could be relied upon to get us in trouble at the most inopportune times. It is the latter that director Bruce Robinson honours in his semi-autobiographical film Withnail and I.
Based on Robinson’s friendship with Vivian MacKerrell, a struggling actor and alcoholic, and set at the end of the sixties, the comedy follows two hapless souls who head to the countryside to flee their sad existence. Stuck in their filthy apartment with limited acting job prospects on the horizon, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and “I” (Paul McGann), whose real name is Marwood, but it is never uttered in the film, spend most of their days in an inebriated state. Things are so bad financially that Withnail is even willing to drink lighter fluid to feed his alcoholism. In need of a change of scenery, the pair decides to spend time at the cottage estate of Withnail’s wealthy Uncle Montague (Richard Griffiths), blissfully unaware of what such a journey will actually require.
A large portion of the humour in Withnail and I comes from watching the Ill-equipped drunkards attempt, unsuccessfully, to navigate this rustic lifestyle. When not bickering with each other, they desperately try to acquire food from the less than hospitable locals, and of course, go searching for the nearest bottle of wine. While it is easy to see the cult appeal of this film, I did not really care much for the plight of either Withnail or I. The more time I spent with the pair, the less I was invested in what ultimately happened to them.
As much as I laughed at lines such as “we’ve gone on vacation by mistake” and “flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees,” the intoxicated leads felt a little too familiar, but not in a good way. They reminded me of some of the guys I encountered in university; the ones who came from a place of privilege and wealth yet acted as if the world was out to get them. Their escapades, including Withnail’s frequent outbursts, come off more as obnoxious rather than witty and endearing.
The scenes I actually enjoyed the most all involved the amorous Uncle Montague. Griffiths is outstanding in the role. He manages to make Monty’s relentless and lecherous pursuit of “I” both comical and creepy. Truth be told, I could have watched an entire film on his character alone. While the dialogue is sharp, and the performances are solid, Withnail and I ultimately left me feeling indifferent. Who knows, maybe I will loosen up to this film more after I have had a few drinks.