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Without the Luck, You’re Fucked

February 18th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Withnail and I (1987)
Written by Bruce Robinson
Directed by Bruce Robinson
Produced by HandMade Films/ Cineplex Odeon Films
Running time: 107 minutes

Withnail and I 1987 poster Withnail and I Criterion DVD cover

In the London neighborhood of Camden Town in 1969, Marwood (Paul McGann) leaves his flat for a cup of tea, only to work himself into a fit over the injustices he sees around him. He returns home to discuss his existential crisis with his pale flatmate Withnail (Richard E. Grant), whose most pressing concern in life is that they’ve run out of booze. Unemployed actors waiting for work, they’re so bored that the highlights of their day include battling the creatures they believe live under the dirty dishes in the sink, and waiting for the pubs to open so they’ll have somewhere warm to go. Marwood suggests they get out of the city for a while, to “get into the countryside and rejuvenate.” Withnail is not game for a holiday. “Rejuvenate. I’m in a park and I’m practically dead. What good’s the countryside?” Marwood urges Withnail to reach out to his uncle, who keeps a house in the country.

After a visit from Danny the Dealer (Ralph Brown) – a wacked out dope peddler who believes hairdressers are in the employment of the government – Withnail takes Marwood to have a drink with his eccentric Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), whose passions are carrots, vintage wine and once he lays eyes on him, Marwood. Obtaining a key to the country house, Marwood and Withnail make it through the driving rain to the village of Penwith. They discover the cottage has no food, no fuel and is almost completely isolated. Marwood hails a farmer to buy wood and a (live) chicken, but Withnail runs afoul with a local poacher who refuses to sell him a pheasant. The cowardly Withnail becomes convinced the poacher is stalking them, but an intruder turns out to be Uncle Monty. Marwood learns that his friend has pimped him out to his uncle in exchange for a weekend in the country.

Withnail and I 1987 Richard Griffiths Richard E. Grant Paul McGann

Production history
In the late 1960s, Bruce Robinson attended Central School of Speech and Drama in London. It was not a pleasant experience, but Robinson embraced the friends he made there, whom he ended up sharing a flat in Camden Town with in near destitution. Robinson had an idea for a script called Private Pirates, about people who were pirates but didn’t know it. He was working on it with a flatmate named Michael Feast, who suggested they rent a cottage in the Lake District to write. Arriving in a downpour, the pair drove their car into a ditch. They then stumbled to the cottage, which they discovered had no electricity, no fuel and nowhere to buy food. Robinson recalled, “We had one piece of Camembert, a couple of apples and a bottle of whiskey. We couldn’t get the car out of the ditch, and we didn’t have any money to get back to London. We spent the whole week just trying to survive. There was nothing at all amusing about it. It was a nightmare.”

A life of cigarettes and booze eventually thinned Robinson’s flat down to himself and a friend named Vivian MacKerrell. Robinson mused, “He had this pomposity of the thespian, very smart guy, very bright. But he was sad too, because he was a jack of all and a master of none, you know. He always used to say to me, ‘If I wrote, I’d write a fuck sight better than you ever would’ or ‘If I painted, I’d paint a fuck sight better than you ever would’ or ‘If I was a photographer, I’d be a better photographer than Bailey.’ But the fact is he never did anything. All he ever did was booze, you know, and rant.” In the winter of 1969, MacKerrell got a job and left Robinson alone in the flat, unemployed and broke. In a mood of despair, Robinson sat down at his kitchen table and started writing about his experiences. Within a month, he had finished a novel titled Withnail and I.

Withnail and I 1987 Paul McGann Richard E. Grant

After writing over twenty feature film scripts that were never produced, Robinson’s luck shifted in 1985, when The Killing Fields garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including a nod for its writer. This didn’t stop Robinson from voicing reservations about the movie to American producer Paul Heller, who recalled: ”I said, ‘Well, the only way you’re going to solve that is to direct yourself.’ And he said, ‘Who’d give me a job as a director?’ I said, ‘If you want to do it, I will work on it.’ He said, ‘The thing I really want to do is Withnail.’ And I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.'” Heller raised half the film’s roughly $2.4 million budget, while another friend of Robinson’s – producer David Wimbury – walked the script into HandMade Films. Musician George Harrison founded the company with his lawyer Denis O’Brien to finance Monty Python’s Life of Brian and agreed to bankroll the remainder of Withnail and I.

To play the role of “I”, Paul McGann was hired and twice fired by Robinson. “He would not lose that Scouse accent. I kept saying to him, ‘You’ve got to dump it, Paul. You’re meant to be a lower-middle-class boy who’s gone to drama school, and you can’t speak like that.’ I got rid of him then reinstated him because he promised me he’d get rid of it, which he did.” Actors who circled the role of Withnail included Daniel Day-Lewis (“He didn’t so much turn it down as time passed and by then he wasn’t available.”), Bill Nighy (“He gave a very good account of himself in the auditions, but that was in Bill’s drinking days and I thought that one drunk on the set was going to be enough.”) and Kenneth Branagh (“He’s an excellent actor, Branagh, and he could have played Withnail, but it would have been a podgy Withnail.”) Though he’d never done a feature film, Richard E. Grant was ultimately cast in the part.

Withnail and I 1987 Richard E. Grant

Shooting commenced August 1986. Robinson recalled, “The night before we were due to start shooting, I’m sitting down at a bar in this little hotel in Penwith with a bottle of vodka, three in morning, smoking myself silly, drinking myself daft, trying get arseholed so I could go sleep or anything, or escape somehow, navigate this fear that was coursing through my veins … And David Wimbury – who’s my old pal David – came in, sat down with me in this empty bar and had a couple of glasses, and he said something to me that is so true about the film industry. He said, ‘The thing is Bruce, it doesn’t matter how good your script is, how good your actors are, how good you may or may not be as a director, how good the weather’s going to be, if you haven’t got luck you’re fucked.’ All that doesn’t matter. Without the luck, you’re fucked, if you’re making a movie. Now, I’ve made a film without luck, and I was fucked. And the thing about Withnail is we had luck.”

Production kicked off with anything but good karma. When executive producer Denis O’Brien complained about how darkly lit and unfunny the film appeared, Robinson threatened to quit. “One of the problems with HandMade: HandMade had made a lot of the kinds of comedies I actually can’t stand, and I don’t say that in a particularly pejorative way, but I hate jokes. Humor to me has to be based on the reality, no matter how absurd and all the rest of it and HandMade were very much into sort of joke type of movies. At it’s very best – Life of Brian – it’s fantastic, but it isn’t my kind of thing.” He added, “Denis – for example – wanted Uncle Monty to be a real, sort of, hinged wrist job. Which firstly I find insulting to homosexuals, and secondly, I don’t find it funny. It’s like Are You Being Served? We’ve all seen that character. What makes Uncle Monty funny is he’s reality. The fact that he is, you know, one of the lads and all of that, and so I had all sorts of difficulties with Denis.”

Withnail and I 1987 Richard E. Grant Richard Griffiths

After publicists arranged a screening in London – with German exchange students who didn’t speak a lick of English inexplicably recruited – Withnail and I went before a test audience in the States. Robinson recalled, “A week later we’re in New York for a screening. And here they all come in and lots and lots of Americans. Harsh audience, and does comedy travel? I have no idea. So we put the film up and they start laughing. Not immediately, about ten minutes in. Sort of that sense of, ‘Oh, this is a funny film. Is it funny?’ But now they’re laughing. And there were two girls in front of me; by about 35 minutes in, they were standing up to laugh, hanging over their seats in front of them. I thought they were going to choke to death, and it was the best noise I’ve ever heard, you know. I’m staring at their asses as they’re rolling on these seats. And the whole theater was screeching with laughter. So that was one of the best experiences of my life, because that’s what we’re all about. That’s what we did it for. Just to make people laugh.”

At the time of its release – June 1987 in the U.S. – Withnail and I was hardly worshiped by critics. Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert debated the film’s merit on At the Movies. Ebert: “I loved this movie. I thought Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty gave a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. And I liked the way that Grant & McGann – the other two actors – gave the impression they had known each other for years and had disliked every moment.” Siskel retorted, “I didn’t care much for this film; it wasn’t bad, it’s just that I never got excited about it, except for one guy … There’s this drug dealer who comes on, and is so funny, I thought he was the funniest character in the movie. The two guys – Uncle Monty is amusing – I thought that the two guys themselves were boring. And so what bored me actually was the center, and who they visited, and who visited them, was interesting. So, I can’t recommend the film.”

Withnail and I 1987 Ralph Brown

Withnail and I managed a meager $1.5 million in the U.S., $820,000 in England and seemed to vanish with little afterthought. Seven years later, Bruce Robinson was at a pub in rural Wales. “There were these young guys outside, surrounded by ducks from the garden. I don’t even know why I spoke to them, but I just said, ‘Oh, look at those ducks.’ And then, in unison, they came back with, ‘Raymond Duck – a dreadful little Israelite! Four floors up on the Charing Cross Road and never a job at the top of them!’ These boys looked like undergrads – 20, 22 years old – and they had no idea who I was. Now I’m looking back at them in my mind and realizing they all had long scarves on and clapped-out old coats. They were in the Withnail world.” The picture was on its way to becoming a seminal bonding experience among college students – mostly boys – in England. It formed a strong cult base in the U.S. as well.

As early as 1998, actor Paul Rudd had watched Withnail and I sixty times, stating “The true fanatics insist it’s nice to have a gem that is somewhat secret. But for the people involved, you want as many people to see it as possible. I’ve probably turned thirty people on to the movie, so I’m obviously not too private in my enjoyment of the film.” Comedian Margaret Cho – commenting around the same time – had seen the movie more than forty times. “I liked the look of the video box. I watched it and I just screamed and howled. It’s one of the funniest films ever made. But it’s not that simple. It reflects the changing of the times and of the seasons in someone’s life. My ritual is that when I have to leave early to go on a trip, I’ll watch a little bit of Withnail while waiting for the car so I will be soothed for my long journey.” Actor Donal Logue added, “For a movie like this to come together, where all the elements caught everybody at their stride, to me it’s a marvel, like a great musical experience when all the elements are chiming correctly.”

Withnail and I 1987 Paul McGann Richard E. Grant

Imagine Sideways with male characters so juvenile that holding more than a two second conversation with the opposite sex seems out of the question, replace the Golden Coast of California with the freezing drizzle of England, pour a lot more booze and you get an idea of what to expect from Withnail and I. The way to enjoy the film is to ignore the bellicose that has been built underneath it in England over the course of the last twenty years, where Ali Catterall with Channel 4 Film wrote, “The best British comedy ever made? Possibly. A masterpiece? Unquestionably.” The movie comes on like anything but a comedy classic. Its dingy look seems less art design and more to do with its bargain basement budget and limited visual skills of its first time director. Fortunately, the script is so fucking good – desperate, hilarious, engaging – that Withnail and I would have worked as a community theater production.

The center of Withnail and I resides in the craft of its dialogue and the relationship between its central characters. Bruce Robinson – whose silliness was not high in demand for The Killing Fields – penned some of the most off-beat film dialogue ever (my favorite from Withnail: “I feel like a pig shat in my head.”) The picture avoids sentimentality or pandering to college kids or Baby Boomers, while documenting a moment in time with such brutal honestly that it can resonate with both. I can’t think of many movies about the fleeting nature of a seemingly inseparable friendship that are as fun as this one. Its cocktail of destitution, despair and camaraderie might not register as much with women, but Ralph Brown steals the film as the sage dirt merchant. Richard E. Grant launched his film career with his bitter, boozing, wickedly funny performance as Withnail.

© Joe Valdez

Withnail and I 1987 Richard E. Grant Paul McGann

At the Movies: Putting on Weight” By Lawrence Van Gelder. New York Times, June 26, 1987

A Bad Week In the 60’s Breeds A Comedy In the 80’s” By Leslie Bennetts. New York Times, July 5, 1987

The Curious Case of Withnail & I” By David Kamp. GQ, October 1995

Withnail and You: A Cult Fave Resurfaces” By Donald Liebenson. L.A. Times, 1998

Withnail & Us. Withnail & I: Criterion Collection. 1999

Withnail and I in Camden” By Rachel Ong. Time Out, 2005

Withnail & I: 20th Anniversary Edition. Starz Home Entertainment, 2006

Tags: Bathtub scene · Cult favorite · Drunk scene · Famous line · Road trip · Small town

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Feb 19, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    I have yet to see this, but just bumped it to the top of my Netflix queue.

    If Paul Rudd has seen it 60 times, that is good enough for me.

  • 2 AR // Feb 19, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I’ve only seen this twice, but it’s definitely one of my favorite comedies and one of the films I consider worth owning on dvd. The comparison to Sideways is interesting, because I like Withnail & I SO much more than that film.

  • 3 Pat Evans // Feb 20, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Is this deja vu.? I thought you reviewed this previously and I remember commenting upon it. Or maybe that was two other people…

    For the record, although I am not a fan, it is probably the ultimate British cult movie.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Feb 22, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Jim: I guess this means I’m influential now. A recommendation from Brian Fantana or The Tao of Steve carries far more weight than what a critic would have to say. I hope you enjoy it.

    Amanda: I think Sideways is brilliant, but I hear from more people now who like you, don’t care for it all that much. As for Withnail and I what makes it funny for me is how specific it is. I doubt anybody but Bruce Robinson could write a line like “If I medicined you, you’d think a brain tumor was a birthday present.”

    Patricia: Thanks for paying such close attention. I’m going back through 40 some-odd articles I published last year and rewriting them in lieu of doing a book. Withnail and I will be part of this project. Like you, I can see this movie as reflective of the British male in many aspects. Unlike Sideways which was essentially romantic and showed men interacting with women, Withnail and I has a much more stoic, Boys Against the World vibe that I consider to be inherently British.

  • 5 the communicatrix // Mar 1, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    The comparison to Sideways is so apt, especially in your comment to Patricia, above, where you talk about how they diverge.

    I am one of the O.F.s (Original Fans) of Withnail and I, responsible for at least 15 of those original U.S. dollars. (As I am of The Commitments, now I think of it.) Haven’t been an oft-repeater of either, though, and now I’m sort of forced into wondering why. It’s not like I’m not a fan of repeat viewings; I’ve watched Play Misty for Me upwards of 150 times, 40 of those all the way through (I fall asleep to it at night, most nights.)

    I think both of the films make me a little anxious, although the Brit incarnation far more than its gentler American cousin. I had a similarly distressed reaction to After Hours, which I could barely sit through, I found it so anxiety-making.

    I like order, I guess. So much for my big, fat, liberal nature.

  • 6 Ash // Apr 19, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    It really grabbed my attention when the comparison between Sideways and Withnail was stated, and the fact that so many comments since have refered to this highlighs how strangely similar in a very unobvious way the two films are, and appeal to very similar audiences. For me the key difference is that Withnail has a very british dry humour lacking any female input laced throughout which I feel would be missed by a lot; my wife, for example, did not get Withnail at all, despite being british. But the tensions and friendship between the two lead characters in both films as they travel and battle through the films together are very similar. Both, for me have cinematic moments that make me laugh out loud when I replay the scenes in my head. But Withnail is to me, the film with the most quoteable lines I have ever seen; VinDiesel was on Jonathan Ross´s show the other week and VinDiesel randomly said “If I medicined you, you´d think a brain tumour was a birthday present!” I was extremely suprised to hear a Withnail quote from an actor connected to films that could not be further away from it, and was disappointed that a British film reviewer did not seem to pick up on this!

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