Though his script for The Killing Fields was nominated for an Academy Award, actor-turned-filmmaker Bruce Robinson is probably best known for 1987's Withnail And I, a cultishly adored comedy recently released on DVD alongside his less-loved follow-up, 1989's How To Get Ahead In Advertising. Loosely based on Robinson's experiences as a struggling actor in '60s London, Withnail stars Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant as chronically unemployed, on-the-dole London thespians wasting away the waning days of the '60s in a drunken, speed-addled haze. Desperate for a change of scenery, the men spend a weekend at the country cottage of Grant's gay uncle, a process complicated both by culture clashes and by the unwanted return of said uncle, a shameless ham with a less-than-wholesome interest in McGann. An episodic slice-of-life comedy, Withnail And I relies less on plot than on characterization. In Grant's boozy, self-pitying, strangely dignified Withnail, Robinson created one of the great characters of British comedy, a tragicomic dandy who hides his insecurities under an outsized cloak of theatrical bravado. McGann is far less memorable by comparison, but he's accompanied by a colorful supporting cast that includes Ralph Brown as a philosophical drug dealer whose off-kilter presence and hypnotic line readings accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of upstaging Grant in his signature role. As much a meditation on the death of the '60s as a fish-out-of-water comedy, Withnail feels at times like an English version of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, another druggy, rambling black comedy about chemical-crazed misfits stumbling through a post-ideological wasteland populated by burnouts, squares, and assorted freaks. (It's probably no coincidence that the movie's poster was designed by Hunter S. Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman.) Withnail And I works as a comedy, but it's a comedy of desperation, and the ever-present specter of failure, overdose, and addiction haunting its leads lends it an aura of lyrical sadness. Grant returns in 1989's How To Get Ahead In Advertising, playing an archetypal figure of '80s greed—a hard-charging advertising executive who long ago decided to cash in his values and integrity for a fat paycheck and a comfortable office. But, while attempting to develop a campaign for zit cream, Grant suffers a crisis of conscience that coincides with the appearance of a talking, demonic, unmistakably right-wing boil on his neck. The insidious boil proceeds to take over Grant's body, turning him into a corporate monster with a malevolent mustache and a nefarious plan to promote boils. An almost Cronenbergian satire on corporate hubris, Advertising is far from subtle, with Grant periodically delivering long, anti-advertising broadsides that could have been lifted directly from a Leftist pamphlet on the evils of hucksterism. Like the similarly themed American Psycho and Vampire's Kiss, Advertising doesn't boast a linear plot; it rises and falls with the wildly varying mental state of its yuppie monster. But Grant's boil-plagued lead makes a terrific monster, and Grant himself makes his metamorphosis from professional bastard to environmental crusader to evil-boil-run-amok not only palatable, but funny, strangely touching, and relatively seamless. Advertising is far from an unqualified success: Subplots and characters are introduced and then forgotten, and the film ends abruptly. But there's much to admire about Robinson's corrosive portrait of a hermetic, artificial world in which not even the human body is safe from the invasive attacks of consumer culture.
More from The A.V. Club