There was Sideways and then The Trip, but first there was Withnail & I. Call it the bromantic dramedy: it follows a pair of urbane males as they test the limits of their friendship against an unfamiliar backdrop. It’s the platonic equivalent of a rom-com, with a road trip thrown in for good measure, and as a micro-genre it’s complete with its own character archetypes, settings, and rituals.
Compare Withnail, Paul Giamatti’s Miles, and the fictionalized Steve Coogan: they’re all men prone to crisis, apt to bemoan the state of affairs—the world’s and their own—and pick apart the minutiae of perceived slights, then eagerly cash in the indignation for another drink. They’re rotten at love, having failed to act on desires [Withnail] or to fully commit (Miles and Steve). They’re hedonists “incapable of indulging in anything but pleasure,” in the words of Withnail’s Uncle Monty. And to their great regret, they also have talent in spades, able to discern a soupçon of black currant in a glass of wine or to deliver one of Hamlet’s soliloquies without blinking an eye, yet they lack professional fulfillment. Adrift in a sea of unrealized dreams, they’d be lost if it wasn’t for the man at their side.
“I,” Thomas Haden Church’s Jack, and the fictionalized Rob Brydon are, comparatively, inches closer to inner peace, and they act as both enabler and reality check to their friend. They’re better at love, probably, with a greater chance at settling down. They’re similarly devoted to the finer things in life, though not to the point of obsession. And they’re also talented, but less bombastically so, and they’re happier with their more modest level of success.
Whenever they’re together, the two men trade observations and ripostes, pulling each other along in an endless tide of conversation that’s typically high-minded, except when it’s not. They can pick up where they left off the night [or bottle] before. Food and wine are necessary to stay stimulated; the finer, the better. And when they get going, nothing can stop them except for their own outsize egos, which are engaged in constant battle and high on the fight. The friendship thrives on conflict.
However, especially in the case of Withnail and I, codependency festers in close quarters. Ultimately, the open road beckons.
Just as Miles and Jack take to Santa Barbara County wine country and Steve and Rob take to the North of England, Withnail and I leave London for Uncle Monty’s cottage in the Lake District. It isn’t quite the escape they were hoping for; incessant rain and lack of food [not even an eel from the wanker at the pub] make for a miserable time until Uncle Monty creeps through the window one night and properly fortifies them. Miles and Jack, Steve and Rob have better luck, but they, too, soon find their vacations less restorative and more stressful than planned.
After all, escape from home doesn’t mean escape from circumstance. Under the specter of leering locals who are quicker to see their faults than their genius, Withnail, Miles, and Steve—crisis-mongers, all—eventually must confront their failings, which are sexual and professional in nature across the board. Their love lives are in shambles and their careers are stagnant. Withnail and Steve both endure humiliating calls to their agents, and Miles and Steve test their luck with beguiling local women. [A fascinating wrinkle to the romantic aspect is Withnail’s probable homosexuality, which makes him repressed rather than merely spurned.] Pressed to see their situation for what it is—the mediocrity blends in more tidily at home—each man finally admits to his grievances, then oscillates between discursive ramblings and hysterical proclamations, unconvinced that he’s gotten his due while worried that greatness will forever remain out of reach.
Meanwhile, “I,” Jack, and Rob try to counter this unproductive melancholy by offering their own kind of support. They attempt to soothe with irony and goad with honesty, tweaking the doses of each to suit his own temperament. Over a few days, the back-and-forth between each pair becomes more personal, and begins to resemble a form of therapy. But even the better-functioning halves aren’t immune to misgivings, and the advice they have for their friends turns out to have personal application, as well. After all, they’ve also been forced into a new perspective.
Suddenly, this more introspective tenor to their conversations forces each man to take stock, as if they were holding mirrors to each other and begging the other to take a look. In that mirror, both men recognize themselves at a crossroads, albeit with different choices to make about moving forward. After all this closeness, they need distance—not really from their friend but from themselves, from the life they’ve been leading and the choices they keep making—in order to take the next step. The road trip, rather than an escape from real life, has simply been a detour—but a necessary one.
What’s more, within that mirror they also recognize their friendship for what it is: a force that sustains and is sustained amid the chaos of love and career. Even the romantic overtones to Withnail and I’s friendship are honored, not sullied, at the end. It’s another type of essential and transformative bond, one that demands an intellectual commitment not usually found in the traditional romances depicted onscreen.