'Withnail and I' at 25: The Hetero-Male Breakup Done Right

American comedies have been dominated by bromances for nearly a decade — including this weekend’s human-stuffed animal friendship fantasy, Ted — but perhaps the most sensitive comedic portrayal of heterosexual male romance is a picture that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, the oft-forgotten Withnail and I

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The lot of popular American comedies over the last half-decade or so is comprised largely of — pardon the awful word — Bromances. Superbad, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, The Harold and Kumar franchise, Role Models, I Love You, Man, The Other Guys, even this weekend’s human-stuffed animal friendship fantasy, Ted. It’s a lengthy list of films that don’t quite explore but certainly celebrate male friendship while loudly pronouncing that their characters should never be mistaken for — gasp — homosexual.  All of them follow the same basic structure: a second act break where the movie pals fall out but patch things up in time to take on the final obstacles of the third act which in turn galvanizes and reaffirms their kinship. Buds Forever. The End.

These films are generally long on the easier stuff,  putting the spotlight on the play of  how hetero-male friendships thrive, but rarely show how they end. But perhaps the most sensitive comedic portrayal of heterosexual male romance is a picture that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, the oft-forgotten Withnail and I.  For those unfamiliar, this little English cult classic — Brits of a certain age know the phrase “I’m making time!” as well as Americans know “Eat my shorts!” — is about unemployed actor roommates, Withnail and Peter Marwood (the “I”), living in heroic filth in Camden Town, London. The acting is terrific, and Richard E. Grant, a teetotaler, gives a remarkably well-observed performance as the alcoholic Withnail, embodying grandiosity (Do you have any idea who I intend to be?) that is, of course, all show.  When the friends seek decompression in a dreadfully planned holiday to the countryside cottage belonging to Withnail’s Uncle Monty, the horrid weather and lack of provisions immediately test their relationship. As the weekend progresses Withnail proves to be an unrepentantly ungrateful, unsupportive, and pretty much lethal person to be around.  Uncle Monty shows up unannounced and is more than a little amorously forward with Marwood. “I mean to have you even if it must be burglary!” Monty cries, and it’s revealed that Withnail procured the cottage only by telling Monty that Marwood was gay and available.

Though regrettably drenched in gay panic, Withnail and I captures the bittersweet quality of male buddyhood wherein the rhythm of life is almost never the same and that one man, inevitably and heartbreakingly, will always leave the other behind. Director Bruce Robinson’s classic is the Annie Hall of heterosexual male bonding and separation, and no other film in recent memory more effectively deals with the male breakup and the conditions and terms in which it happens.

The unwritten code between pals in the bromance traditon is:  Don’t one-up me, bro.  Let’s agree to spend our days one-downing each other but never, under any circumstance, will we strive to best each other.  More simply, it’s an agreement to not grow up together. Of course, tragedy lies in the inexorable fork in the road where one friend realizes, “If I don’t get out now, my friend will take me down with him.”

This is where Withnail and I thrives. In a walk to the train station — Marwood has landed a part in a play in Manchester — he (and we) sees Withnail for what he is, an advanced-stage alcoholic, recognizes his false-swagger, and rightly concludes that his thrashing mate could very well pull him underwater as well.

One man must extricate himself from an increasingly unmanageable relationship with a friend who proves to be Kryptonite. He must leave the other behind. The other understands why at a level outside of his own awareness and doesn’t fight it. If this were an American Buddy Comedy, Withnail would become improbably reflective and make amends for his foibles and the pair would return to where they started. But Bruce Robinson’s film is far too committed to truth to be so tidy. Withnail may be convinced that his poor station and prospects are solely the result of the world not realizing his own genius, but really he is terrified of real life.

There’s self-acceptance and tragedy that work in a way that Judd Apatow and his cohorts don’t simply fail to reach, they simply don’t even try.  In addition to being an obvious metaphor for the end of the Sixties, Robinson has said that his film is simply about one man who might make it, and one man who won’t, and as the two friends say goodbye it’s certain that wherever their paths may take them, they will never see each other again.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.