This month’s Groovers and Mobsters Present series looks at The Buddy Flick.
I chose to highlight one of my favourite British comedies Withnail and I.
Quote: “We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here and we want them now!”
Withnail and I is a caustic tale of two down on their luck actors living in London in 1969. It stars Richard E. Grant as Withnail and Paul McGann as his roommate and best friend Marwood. The pair live in squalid, rundown accommodation harking back to writer-director Bruce Robinson’s early days as a struggling actor himself. The grime of London’s underclass is in stark contrast with the city’s association to grandeur and riches.
Withnail and Marwood decide that they need a holiday. They leave their Camden Town apartment, heading north to a tranquil countryside retreat thanks to Withnail’s openly homosexual Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths). The film then follows their misadventures including an impromptu visit from Monty who, unbeknownst to Marwood, arrives on the pretence Withnail’s best friend is also gay and looking for love.
When you strip Withnail and I of its linguistic jousting and infinitely quotable lines, you lay bare a heartfelt parable of two friends fighting themselves. Marwood laments poetically, his inner-monologue introducing the viewer to this urban squalor in Camden’s miserable town, while Withnail’s destruction appears self-warranted, as if his only way to live life to the full is finding the most hallucinogenic way to end it. The film’s heartbreaking finale sees the friendship conclude, with Withnail delivering his finest, and perhaps final, theatrical performance to an uninterested pack of wolves. His injured pride is laid naked on this stage as he reads from Hamlet, which is both a poignant finale and bitter indictment of the situation. It carries more power because Grant so brilliantly encapsulates the scene, Robinson not allowing any cinematic extravagances to take anything away from Withnail’s moment.
Yet it all goes to supplement the film’s wonderful humor. It was voted, unsurprisingly, the third greatest comedy of all time in 2000. Robinson’s script is full of joyous wordage born out pathos, paranoia and bitterness. Infinitely quotable, the film is one of the most oft-imitated and referenced. It sits proudly alongside the likes of This Is Spinal Tap, The Big Lebowski and Some Like It Hot.
See also our Top 10 British Comedy Films since 1980