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‘Withnail & I’

by Giovanni Fazio

Kichijoji’s storied Baus Theater will be closing its doors on June 10, but it is going out with a bang, reviving a bunch of its most popular hits from the past three decades, including “El Topo,” “Sid & Nancy,” “Picnic” and “Dark Star.” The closing spot goes to “Withnail & I,” the cult British comedy that originally played at Baus in 1991. (And the remastered print will be playing around Japan’s mini-theaters after its run at Baus.)

To draw an easy comparison, “Withnail & I” is Britain’s “The Big Lebowski”: Both deal with male bonding between “losers” who seem utterly removed from respectable society; both have a wicked sense of humor; and both are infinitely quotable and became far more popular as the years went by. Yet while the Coen Brothers’ “Lebowski” is ultimately good-natured at its heart — all life’s troubles can be banished by the mantra “f-ck it dude, let’s go bowling” — “Withnail & I” has poison in its veins, with an ending that is far less forgiving of its characters’ excesses.

The story follows two unemployed and near-penniless actors — Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and the “I” played by Paul McGann — in London’s Camden Town in 1969, going stir crazy in their frigid flat as they binge on alcohol, methamphetamine and, umm, lighter fluid. Deciding a whiff of country air might do them good, Withnail convinces his posh Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to loan them his cottage, only to find an even worse time awaits them there, with menacing locals and a surprise visit from dear old Monty, who proves to be a relentlessly predatory queen.

Writer-director Bruce Robinson based the tale largely on his own experiences, with the whole thing run through a Hunter S. Thompson prism of fear, loathing and heroic substance abuse that’s as frightening as it is amusing. This connection was overt, with long-time Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman enlisted to do all the poster art for “Withnail,” and it’s no surprise that it was Robinson who wound up bringing Thompson’s novel “The Rum Diary” to the screen in 2011.

While most of this remains funny, the line between amusing inebriation and obnoxious boorishness is crossed several times, complicating the viewer’s response to the characters’ plight, something that I noticed more when returning to the film.

“Withnail” is full of great performances — with Ralph Brown’s dazed hippie drug-dealer and his Camberwell Carrot being a classic — but the film is Grant’s from beginning to end, and his portrait of a failing artist spewing bile at one and all, and drowning his sorrows on an endless bender, is both hilarious and tragic. (And even more impressive when one considers that Grant was a teetotaler.) Perhaps the film’s final irony is that playing a snide, bitter actor too negative to find any work led to Grant becoming a star, and he’s had a long and successful career since, frequently playing such abrasive characters. One likes to think the fictional Withnail was as lucky, but I suspect not.