As an American, “British comedy” has become a specific genre unto itself. Typically, comedies from the U.K. have a few qualifying traits: droll, dry wit, with some level of sophistication [though perhaps that’s just the accents], but also not afraid to be incredibly weird. Before the age of streaming video, British comedy shows and films were often underground secrets in the U.S., which perhaps help lead it to becoming a contained thing even as Monty Python and Coupling aren’t necessarily coming from the same comedic sensibilities. In recent years, dozens of once-cultish programs are very easily accessible, though because of their profile most maintain that niche space for a discerning audience.
Bruce Robinson’s 1987 comedy Withnail & I has a similar reference point in my mind. It is a film that I have long been aware of and interested in, but for its availability or reputation, I never made it priority viewing. Despite clearly taking on and becoming influences for British comedy, it is difficult to easily define. That hasn’t kept it, though, from [or perhaps has limited it to] finding its own cult following—fans have created a [potentially dangerous] drinking game mirroring the characters’ journey of imbibing and floated around many theories of the true name of Paul McGann’s “I”. Similarly, filmmakers and musicians have added covert references to Withnail & I into their art, such as in About Time where director Richard Curtis brought Richard E. Grant and Richard Griffiths back together as lawyers in a play within the film.
Trying to classify Withnail & I as a specific kind of comedy is nearly impossible, defying the idea that its “Britishness” fits it in with a particular genre. Throughout the film, I could register it as funny, but could never exactly pinpoint how or why. Withnail & I isn’t exactly the absurdist comedy made famous by British troupe Monty Python, but there is obviously an offbeat nature to its humor. It isn’t like the modern anti-comedy trend, either, as Withnail & I’s more exaggerated character quirks and clear narrative momentum [even as it is in a scattered way] give it a bit more definition. And still, I often felt lost, confused, and perplexed. It is certainly unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Strangely, the most obvious connection that struck me is to the British kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s—films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which were defined by their ultra realism and “angry young man” protagonists, launching the careers of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, among others. Those films weren’t absolutely devoid of humor, but they dealt with bleak real-world problems for the British working class. Shoot Withnail & I in black-and-white and throw in a strained sexual relationship and it could have definitely been transported into the more dramatic genre. If Bruce Robinson tried to make Withnail & I an outright kitchen sink parody, he wouldn’t have had to put in much added effort or alteration. But that would have been far less interesting.
The kitchen sink aesthetic plays into the relationship of the two lead characters, which is serious and complex [almost on a psychological level] and undoubtedly the dark heart of the film. It is difficult to consider this world without them together, they almost seem like two sides of the same psyche—if the film had ended with a twist that Withnail was a figment of its narrator’s imagination, I would have rolled along with it. As a comedy, this is a strikingly different relationship than we typically see, especially considering the majority of modern buddy comedies that crank up the homoeroticism to the surface while pitting the friends against each other in one sort of masculinity contest or another. Withnail & I gives some actual lip service to this idea in one of the more memorable scenes, violently attacking the thought where most comedies would leave it rather muddled.
Withnail and I might not feel much like a classic comedy duo, but their symbiotic presence works coolly and comfortably, feeding into their shared hijinks. Of course, the booze helps, too. Perhaps because we all feel funnier when we’re drunk, the alcoholism comedy has become a definite subgenre, celebrating inebriated antics in films like Arthur, 28 Days, and Bad Santa. The alcoholic binge in Withnail & I happens from start to end, though it plays out in a more matter-of-fact way than I expected, rarely calling itself out like other comedies might—specifically, there are no grand messages or really even many negative consequences for drinking all the wine, liquor, beer, and booze in sight.
Absurdity, anti-comedy, buddy comedies, and alcoholism, Withnail & I uses all of these comedy tropes without really fitting with any of them. That might sound like a film that is trying to throw everything against the wall just to get a laugh, but that isn’t the case—not only does the film have a distinctive and consistent tone and tone, it doesn’t really seem all that concerned about making you laugh at all. And yet, Withnail & I still somehow defies any sort of categorization. In the end, that is what makes Withnail & I such a special film. As comedies are becoming more defined within subgenres, safer products of the Hollywood system, this is a unique and radical kind of comedy.