There's something about the English, Scottish and Irish that has made them fascinated with squalor. Trainspotting, The Young Ones, the films of Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh's Naked. Probably some combination of class-ism and the tradition of binge-drinking among the writers and artists of that region has resulted in most creative types struggling, at least periodically, in an impoverished state of filth and subsequently writing about it, creating what is practically a genre unto itself. While I'm not crazy about this particular school of English comedy, Withnail & I is one of the most beloved works of its kind, and it's just funny enough to survive the deep well of unpleasantness from which it has sprung.
Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant star as unemployed actors suffering through the rainy cold of an English winter. Oppressed by the weather and the scuzzy disrepair of their flat, they contrive to take a holiday at the country cottage of Withnail's (Grant) rich bachelor uncle (Richard Griffiths). These two raggedy city fops, however, are hopeless at everything except for drinking, so they do a lot of it and not much else. Then Uncle Monty arrives in the country and expects McGann to to keep him warm during the cold nights.
It took me some time to warm up to Withnail & I. Writer/director Bruce Robinson starts with the characters at such a fever-pitch of drunken agitation that there is no easy entree for an audience who doesn't immediately acclimate to this dire little world. However, Grant is so good at playing this particular type of witheringly disdainful ponce, that he alone keeps it all amusing enough to not slip into grating noise. By the time the lads make it to the country, there's a certain charm to it all despite the fairly loathsome nature of the essentially shiftless characters. By the end, I was actually enjoying it quite a bit, even though its climax hinges on the presumably hilarious threat of gay rape (or, "burglary," as Uncle Monty puts it).
There's a neat wistfulness by the very end of Withnail & I — which is semi-autobiographical, based on Robinson's experiences in the late 1960s — but it's somewhat undercut by Withnail's thorough lack of decent qualities. Apparently an early version ended with Withnail's suicide, which may have been more apt but also would have likely harshed the comedy a little. Ralph Brown has a great small but significant role, memorably accompanied at the end by Eddie "Chocolate Mousse" Tagoe.