I have been hearing about this movie for years, and became interested in seeing after really enjoying the writer/director’s follow up, How To Get Ahead in Advertising. So when my friend had a DVD he could lend me, I jumped on a chance to watch it. He warned me not to read the back of the box [depending on which version you have, his was not the Criterion], because it gives away something that happens in the last five minutes of the movie, and I decided not to know ANYTHING about it, which turns out to have been fine, but not strictly necessary [though you do want to avoid that end-of-film revelation].
Richard E. Grant plays Withnail, and Paul McGann plays “& I,” [he is never actually named]. They are both struggling actors sharing a flat. At first you think they’re really, really poor, but you can see that they always have money for cigarettes and other sundries, and there’s talk that Withnail is getting a stipend from one of his relatives. It’s clear that something strange is going on… at first I, knowing nothing about where the film was going, thought that maybe we’d learn that Withnail didn’t exist, was just a figment of the other guy's imagination, then I thought that they were BOTH crazy, but finally it became apparent that they’re both out-of-work actors and are both mega, giga drama queens.
They seem to go through life seeing everything as an excuse to throw a grand dramatic scene, which can be funny, especially when you’re talking about Richard E. Grant going off in long soliloquies delivered with his excellent command of English about how hungry he is or how everything sucks or the indignities he must suffer or whatever. Paul McGann is very good as well, and very handsome. It’s too bad his career didn’t go further.
Anyway, soon they go meet Withnail’s Uncle Monty, an older homosexual who is also a former actor and loves to pontificate. Withnail gets the use of this cottage he has in Penwith and they go there, drawing the ire of the locals. By this time one can see that the two of them go out of their way to add as much additional drama to any situation because they’re both just… massive drama queens. During this time we’ve also had several demonstrations of the fact that Withnail is a very fickle friend and routinely and unforgivably is very happy to leave his friend in danger or to face the worst of a situation—in many cases a situation Withnail created. In short, he has no loyalty whatsoever, which will come to be, after a series of developments, one of the more moving aspects of the movie later.
Anyway, soon Uncle Monty arrives to stay with the twosome and starts coming on consistently and HARD to “& I.” This character is one of those where you’re sitting there watching going “is this offensive?” because he is portrayed as such a mincing, sex-crazed, double entendre-spouting queen unable to take no for an answer, and yet I have known people of that age and generation who are not too far removed from that. Ultimately what this part of the movie made me reflect on is how the slow opening up of acceptance in society has made these kind of homosexuals obsolete, and how few of them there are anymore. I guess that’s good… though I have my issues with the blandness and consumer-centric psyches of many of today’s generation of gays, I guess it’s better than these insufferable queens addicted to the tragedy of their own existences. You’ve come a long way, baby.
There is also a LOT of homoerotic content to this film, just from the close, almost symbiotic and certainly bickering and abusive relationship between the two friends, the paper someone is reading at the very beginning [below], both of them being considered gay ["poofs"] by the townspeople... and the movie doesn't go out of it's way until much later to demonstrate that the characters are not gay and are not lovers. And ultimately that doesn't matter, because they SEEM like lovers through so much of it.
Anyway, so it goes on, it’s funny, there are a great many good lines and funny sequences, and then it ends in a way that is both unexpected yet somehow predictable—and surprisingly moving, especially considering how horrible some of the characters have been to each other. Ultimately a very worthy watch, especially for aspiring actors [though I would think it might be devastatingly depressing to them], although in the end I guess I prefer How To Get Ahead in Advertising. That movie was more focused and composed, whereas this one has more of a “made up as we went along” feeling, and as such is less satisfying—to me.
Yes, especially if you find the British funny, are an actor, or know one.
HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING is another movie by director Bruce Robinson and also stars Richard E. Grant. It is about a man who grows a boil on his neck, which eventually becomes a small head that starts talking to him, and it riotously funny.