by Elizabeth Wilcox
There’s a certain comfort in watching other peoples’ distress. Hence the ubiquity of America’s Funniest Home Videos, the popularity of The Office, the genesis of all of Michael Cera’s acting roles, and the joy of watching Simon Cowell eviscerate naive contestants on American Idol. But go overboard on the humiliation factor, and a potentially humorous situation turns uncomfortable, distressing — even downright disturbing.
Withnail and I (dir. Bruce Robinson) strides purposefully into disturbing territory without even a cursory glance back. Watching it is sort of like getting on that terrifying Willy Wonka boat (you know which one I mean) — thrillingly fun at first, then sort of weird and bothersome, then get-me-off-I-don’t-want-to-ride-anymore fucked up.
Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann)—the “I” of the title—are struggling young actors in London, navigating the wasteland of unemployment with the aid of alcohol, drugs, anxiety, and cake. A holiday in the country seems to be in order, but that too devolves in a dark mess of mud, horny bulls, angry poachers, drunken posturing, and unwelcome homosexual advances by Withnail’s uncle (Richard Griffiths) which ends in a near-rape.
And yes, it’s a comedy. Though what sort of comedy? I’m still on the fence. (Apparently, one of the producers, Denis O’Brien, was also unsure whether its brand of humor would be marketable … he nearly shut production down after only three days of filming, concerned that there were no “discernible jokes”). In one of the film’s many gloriously inadvisable drunk driving montages, Withnail notices a street sign warning drivers about pedestrian accidents. He sticks his head out the window and yells buoyantly, “These aren’t accidents! They’re THROWING themselves into the road gladly! THROWING themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness! Throw yourself into the road, darling! You haven’t got a chance!” Watching this scene, I find myself without a chance of avoiding both laughter and a sudden strong urge to surrender to Withnail’s joyfully seductive call.
And there must be some sort of psychological seduction going on here, because why else would so many people take to obsessively watching and re-watching Withnail and Marwood’s horrifying experience? Perhaps Withnail and I is sort of like that half-naked guy at the party with whom you spend a while talking in an attempt to figure out whether he’s wasted or high or just weird, and you end up walking away from him having no idea but feeling sort of dirty and just wanting another drink, or maybe just some chips with a really spicy salsa. But then he’s getting some chips too, and even though you really don’t ever want to talk to him again you end up getting into a second conversation, and it’s even weirder than the first, but suddenly you feel some sort of inexplicable tie to this guy, even though he has bad breath.
I guess that’s why I re-watch this movie nearly every year. And I’m not a chronic movie re-watcher. In fact, I’m much more likely to re-read a book than to watch a movie for a second time, if that tells you anything. But there’s something about the darkness of Withnail and I that has become reassuring and certain and necessary to me. Even as it’s laughing, it pokes at you with tiny little needles: the prick of futility, the way roads draw blood when they turn out to lead to some blank space, the vaccination that can’t quite protect you against the dreams doing beautiful backflips off the diving board only to remember in the instant before they touch the water that they can’t swim.
What a piece of work is a man, as Hamlet would say. Withnail delivers the great Dane’s most misanthropic (and, I think, poetic) speech in a staggeringly beautiful and hopeless and, well, human final scene. Sure, man delights not me — nor woman neither. But this film always will, even as — or perhaps, because — it disturbs.
Elizabeth Wilcox is a writer and graduate student living in Los Angeles, CA. She tumbls here.