Withnail & I (1987)
It's always when a movie hits a solid R that I can agree with the MPAA. This is an appropriate R. Like many counter-culture booze and drug movies, there's a solid amount of cussing, debauchery, and general ickiness. The movie isn't profane, I suppose, but there's some definite R-rated content in this movie that earns it the solid R-rating. Just in time for Christmas!
DIRECTOR: Bruce Robinson
Merry Christmas! Let's talk about rampant alcoholism and treating each other terribly. A few years ago, I met Paul McGann at a comic book convention in Cincinnati. Hold your applause. You can't believe I can hob knob with the Doctor Who elite for a price! He might have been the coolest Doctor that I met and I've met an irresponsible amount of them. But it was early in the convention on a weekday (I keep painting myself out to be the coolest guy ever) and he was very encouraging of chatting. Normally, I seize up around celebs and get all clunky. (That's also not completely true, but I constantly remind myself that celebrities have no desire to get to know me and that they are doing me a solid by signing my poster in fancy markers.) But McGann seemed like he wanted company and since I was the only one around, he kept asking me questions and we got to chatting. The guy was super cool and I decided that I should eventually watch the other thing that he is famous for, Withnail & I. The only problem is that it was out-of-print on Criterion and, despite the fact that I COULD afford it, I decided to wait until it crossed my path without me spending money on it. Thank you, TCM. I'm sure that my wife doesn't disagree because she quickly realized that this movie wasn't for her. Oops. That's what happens when I don't spend money, Lauren. You have to then sit through the movie. (I know that doesn't exactly play, but I like that line of thinking.)
Withnail & I is a cult classic. While watching Leonard Maltin interview Matt Walsh about why he picked this movie to show, Maltin said that very few movies are actually cult classics. Rather, they are simply liked by a small fanbase, but are rarely objectively great. He said that Withnail & I was a great movie that actually deserved the term "cult classic" because of its greatness. I'll agree with Maltin that not everything actually deserves the term "cult classic", but I don't think it has anything to do with objective value. Heck, there's even the argument that "objective value" shouldn't necessarily be stapled onto a film criticism. I kind of dug Withnail & I but I also don't consider it to be a movie that I'd be watching multiple times. It's one of those real bummer movies that you kind of like to watch where the protagonists are hot messes and sometimes it is satisfying to see people make horrible choices. I don't know if it puts my own choices in perspective. I probably think that I'm better than these people, but I have to imagine that there is a strong Withnail audience who probably admire Withnail and Marwood because their lives mirror theirs so much. It is odd to think of this movie as a comedy. There were moments where I laughed, but the jokes are dark. Like, the movie gets really uncomfortable a lot of the time. Part of the reason is that these two guys are the causes of their own miseries. We all know people like this. People who lead insane lives and wonder why they are never consistently happy. Their temporary highs just leave every other moment as a miserable void, and there's something darkly funny about the whole thing. Again, I tend to overanalyze on this blog. There weren't moments where I was just guffawing, "They are doing this to themselves" as I held my side. None of that. It was more along the lines of the absurdity of the whole situation. I guess Withnail & I is somewhat absurdist. Yeah, it follows the rules of reality in the sense that there is a linear cause-and-effect. Outside of the fact that Withnail, Marwood, and Monty -to a certain degree - are constantly inebriated and have a skewed sense of reality, the rest of the world abides by our laws. But so little of the movie is outside of the perspective of the protagonists that the rules just feel bizarre. Withnail and Marwood make their own weird sense and that's how the movie plays out.
Walsh, in the interview, described this movie as typical of the young actor. Every young actor can relate to Marwood and now I'm really glad that I went onto be a film and English teacher instead of following my theatre degree. I don't know if that is necessarily true. I think most people go through that period of arrested development where they live somewhat more frugally than later in life. When we first got married, I know that we lived on the cheap pretty hard in Dayton. But there is this odd association with this comment that I'd like to discuss. I don't know why low-income in a temporary state instantly gets associated with poor decision making. That's kind of what the movie is selling. I know that I have completely left the ranch when it comes to analyzing this movie, but there is this weird subtle assumption that those in a temporary financial jam while being in the arts will instantly resort to debasing themselves and lead a life of drunken grossness. I just want to comment on it. But the fun balance of this character can be Ralph Brown's Danny. He's doing the character that I love from Wayne's World 2 in this one and I don't care. I loved Del Preston and seeing the extreme version of Withnail totally sells the movie. The thing about Withnail is that he is a hateful individual. He's absolutely the worst. He is amazingly toxic and that can only go so far in a film. Danny is that nice balance and he kind of brings up the theme of the movie. As terrible as these guys are, there's something nostalgic that Danny brings up about those born in the late '60s and early '70s. Withnail, Marwood, and Danny are the end of an era. Danny brings up this very interesting notion that "Hippie wigs are sold at Woolworths" or something like that. Withnail and Marwood are commentaries on the counter-culture movement. No one could possibly take these two guys seriously because they are lost souls. They are the results of having little responsibility for a generation. Remember, the hippie counter-culture movement was about something. It was a response to civil rights and a war and all kinds of nonsense that needed a voice. Withnail and Marwood live the counter culture movement without having an enemy to rebel against. They simply fight the voice of the common man, which is perfectly fine. It's worst crime, from the film's perspective, is that they are boring. Keep in mind, George Harrison produced this movie. By yelling at people who are simple folks who just want to live their lives doesn't make the boring people look bad, but the drunks look like drunks. I kind of like that. Admittedly, the world is far more complex, but it is an interesting view of how a generation dies. Between this movie and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that theme is something interesting to explore.
The stuff with Uncle Monty is super uncomfortable. The movie is bold and childish simultaneously when it comes to commenting on sexuality. Richard Griffiths is this famous character actor. For those not familiar with him, he's Uncle Vernon from the Harry Potter franchise. I loved seeing him in this movie and Bruce Robinson writes this character both as sympathetic and truly pathetic. I don't know if this character is a step forward or a step backwards, but he does come off as extremely icky. The tone of the movie up to this point is pretty icky and Robinson does a solid job of letting the unstated carry through the narrative. It is this elephant in the room, but it comes down to how aggressive Monty becomes throughout the film. While his sequences with McGann are tonally appropriate, there is just this desire to curl under the blankets and hide. It is so sad and a bit of a play for comedy where there really shouldn't be. But as I stated before, this is the film's bread and butter. The movie really plays for laughs with the darkest moments and I really couldn't get much of a laugh out of this moment. The makeup on Griffiths's face reminded me a bit too much of some of the makeup I would see in a Rob Zombie movie. This moment has been teased throughout much of the film, especially when Monty shows up in the middle of the night. There's something just so bleak about the whole thing that I got a little bummed out about it. Heck, I'm getting bummed out thinking about it now. The movie wholeheartedly establishes that Monty's advances are well within the lines of rape, but he's just the saddest character throughout. I don't know why this dynamic is created. Are we supposed to feel bad for him? Withnail engineers this whole sequence without a care. He gets to this sociopathic level of greed that it isn't fair that Monty was even put in this position. But where Monty goes from there is super dark. I guess a lot of this thought comes from what I'm supposed to take away from the film. It is the most intense section of the movie and I think that Robinson wanted me to laugh off this moment. Perhaps it is the fact that this movie was made in 1987 and that we've become a bit more woke when it comes to this stuff, but I don't think that this scene was given its proper gravitas. Instead, I kind of left the movie feeling like I needed a shower.
I have to go back to Leonard Maltin's thoughts on cult classics. A cult classic is something that a small group of people find genius and get obsessed about. But I completely disagree on the objectivity of these movies. If anything, cult classics should be special because something spoke to that viewer at that particular time. I tend to get why movies become cult classics. I have quite a few myself. Withnail & I is a cult classic, one that I even kind of enjoyed. But it also follows the rules of other cult classics. This movie, I'm absolutely positive, speaks to some people more than others. It isn't a perfect movie and I can get why some people like it. But I will never jump on board this cult and I would never force this down anyone's throats. I gave my wife a video game and let her play it, so I can stand by that statement.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.