** (Worth seeing)

Directed and written by Bruce Robinson

With Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths, and. Ralph Brown.

Bruce Robinson, the British screenwriter of The Killing Fields and writer-director of the new comedy Withnail and I, strikes me as an artistic tease. He comes up with fresh, invigorating ideas for movies, then fails to deliver. The Killing Fields could have been a screen masterpiece. The story of journalist Sydney Schanberg’s friendship with his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran, set against the 1975 fall of Phnom Penh and its aftermath, promised a potentially riveting fusion of personal and historical concerns. But Robinson drenched the film with cliches–Pran lugging a baby across the treacherous countryside like a D. W. Griffith heroine; Schanberg suffering a crisis of conscience while listening to opera recordings in his Manhattan penthouse; the two friends reuniting in the closing shot to the strains of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Trite ideas and banal development trivialized a worthy theme.

Withnail and I is a much lighter piece, a bittersweet comedy about two dissolute young English actors facing the end of the 60s. It’s a pleasant enough picture, a mixture of humor and drama effectively performed by a cast of unfamiliar players and shot with an appropriately dark, moody palette. But again Robinson’s screenplay is shallow; he is content to stick to surfaces and never strains himself to probe the possibilities of his material.

After a bookish childhood in Kent, Robinson trained as an actor at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. He performed extensively on the British stage and appeared in about a dozen films. (His best-known screen role was as Isabelle Adjani’s handsome, faithless lover, Captain Pinson, in Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H.) In 1975, he abandoned acting to write novels and screenplays. The Killing Fields was the first of Robinson’s efforts to reach the screen. Based on the success of that movie–the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar–Robinson mustered enough clout to write and direct his next project, Withnail and I, an adaptation of a novel he wrote in 1970.

In the new film’s press kit, Robinson discusses his fascination with writing. “I am entranced by words. There are sections of Hamlet that can still make me weep, even when I have read them a hundred times. The combination of those words is freely available to everyone, but it took Shakespeare to throw up those emotions.” Ignoring Robinson’s unfortunate diction–I doubt that anyone who truly loves Shakespeare would employ so maladroit a phrase as “to throw up those emotions”–I think this passage suggests what’s wrong with Robinson’s screenplays.

First-rate dramatic writing is constructed of ideas and language; the emotional interpretation of the play script is the actor’s contribution. Robinson is more concerned with effect than cause; he devises screenplays that offer any number of emotive cues for his players, but suffer from skimpy intellectual and structural development. This is a frequent problem in the work of actors who turn to writing. Apart from a few memorable autobiographies (Mary Astor, James Mason, David Niven), it’s difficult to think of many actors who have truly distinguished themselves as authors.

Clearly, Withnail and I is an autobiographical film, drawing on Robinson’s experiences as a struggling actor in the twilight of Swinging London. Thirty-year-old Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and 25-year-old Marwood (Paul McGann) share a filthy Camden Town flat in the last months of 1969. They survive on booze and drugs, supplied by their zonked-out dealer Danny (Ralph Brown). With no money left for food, heat, or rent, these two young men are “drifting into the arena of the unwell.”

They manage to con Withnail’s foppish Uncle Monty into loaning them his country cottage in Penrith, where they can dry out and “rejuvenate.” But after reaching the cottage, they are faced with the same problems that forced them to flee London–no light, heat, or food. Monty unexpectedly turns up and, in a long sequence that recalls French bedroom farce, attempts to put the make on Marwood. Monty’s ardent advances drive the pair back to London where, after discovering Danny and a friend ensconced in their flat as well as an eviction notice, Marwood learns he has been offered the lead in a play. As “the greatest decade known to mankind” draws to a close, Marwood strides off to face a bright theatrical future. The embittered Withnail is left behind, reciting lines from Hamlet to a caged animal in the park.

As a director, Robinson handles externals with finesse. The Camden Town apartment, with clutter and rubbish festering amid antiques and curios, is every bit as convincing as the comfortless, gone-to-seed, rustic cottage. The actors seem comfortable in their roles. With his snotty manner and pouty, rich-boy good looks, Richard E. Grant, born in Swaziland to diplomatic corps parents, is an ideal Withnail. A lying, self-dramatizing, opportunistic speed freak, Grant’s Withnail is not a very appealing character; nevertheless, he possesses the libertine’s perverse attractiveness. McGann’s sweetness as Marwood provides the needed balance; he’s a druggy naif–gullible, idealistic, good-hearted, the dupe of Withnail’s schemes. Ralph Brown, who plays their connection, enlivens several scenes with some woozy, sometimes unintelligible R. Crumb rhythms.

But Robinson’s directorial approach is superficial. Visually, his sense of period atmosphere is weak; one never gets the feeling of being in the anarchic London of the late 60s. The film’s opening shot–bespectacled, chain-smoking Marwood anxiously waiting for his roommate to awaken–promises that the film’s characterizations will be multidimensional. Yet the core of Withnail and Marwood’s relationship is never really examined. Early on, Robinson seems to imply that they are lovers, but later, when Monty gets the hots for Marwood, we discover that both young men are turned off by homosexuality. In the final scene, where the rejuvenated Marwood, dressed in clean clothes and shorn of his Pre-Raphaelite hair, marches off toward theatrical success, leaving Withnail behind, the meaning of this parting is unclear. The two friends suddenly slip into the conventional coming-of-age roles of the gifted protege and the cast-off mentor–Prince Hal banishing Falstaff, or, from Prick Up Your Ears, Joe Orton eclipsing Kenneth Halliwell.

Only Richard Griffiths, as Uncle Monty, cuts through the film’s amiably brittle surface. A prominent British stage actor, Griffiths caught the attention of moviegoers two years ago as Allardyce in A Private Function, a porcine provincial accountant with a tender heart. His Monty is equally memorable–an eccentric, sentimental queen who reads Baudelaire, wears a radish in his buttonhole, and smacks his lips at the thought of “a firm young carrot.” Griffiths, the best corpulent English actor since Charles Laughton, plays Monty straight, which makes him all the funnier and more affecting.

Monty was, himself, once a struggling young actor, but abandoned the theater when he realized he would “never play the Dane.” Because the film ends with the abandoned Withnail reciting Hamlet (“What a piece of work is man! . . .”), we’re presumably supposed to see some correspondence between uncle and nephew, but this connection, too, is not very illuminatingly drawn. However absurd, Monty’s blubbery sensitivity and sexual avidity are impressive; spiritually as well as physically, he is a man of substance. But Withnail lacks intensity and passion; we never learn whether he has any commitment to acting or even any sexuality. (As in The Killing Fields, Robinson’s bonded male characters seem to have no erotic dimensions. One wonders why the writer is so evasive on this subject.) If Robinson has any fresh insights into what the social upheaval of the 60s meant, or of the various forms that rebellion takes for different generations, he has kept them to himself.

Withnail and I is more than passably diverting and surely preferable to mindless Hollywood summer movies. But it left me hungry to know much more about its characters and their era than the writer-director seems interested in providing. Only Griffiths, with his blue eye shadow and piglike snout, his ludicrous pretensions and touching generosity, manages, through the actor’s art, to endow Robinson’s skeletal screenplay with texture and depth. After completing Withnail and I, Robinson left England for Hollywood, where he’s currently developing two projects for Warner Brothers. With his knack for exploiting rather than exploring his themes, I suspect he’ll feel very much at home there.