Grade: B-Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002)

Director: Lone Scherfig

Stars: Jamie Sives, Adrian Rawlins, Shirley Henderson

Release Company: ThinkFilm

MPAA Rating: R

Scherfig: Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself


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Drawing an obvious comparison to Harold and Maude, the twenty-five + year old protagonist of Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself literally attempts suicide numerous times, only to be saved most frequently by his sympathetic older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins). Apparently depressed after the death of his parents, Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is banned from a therapy group and tries drug overdoses, gas asphyxiation, drowning, and wrist slicing to no avail. Or perhaps he craves the attention since he rejects more permanent denouements like stepping off a 15 story building.

Wilbur's motivations may remain ambiguous, but one certainty remains—Lone Scherfig's film weaves a sweet character study throughout its 109 minutes, very much like her previous Dogme project, Italian for Beginners. Although the Danish director utilizes a great deal of natural lighting in location shots, her current film doesn't dogmatically follow Van Trier's strict austere guidelines since its plaintiff string score gives away its warmhearted core values. This film deals far more with the heart than the head.

Glasgow's gray skies and its gothic cemetery overlook provide a melancholy backdrop that belies the screenplay's humorous tone. Initially only looked after effectively by his brother, Wilbur lives out a perfunctory existence, hanging out at his cramped living quarters directly over the family used bookstore—filled with disorganized inventory. One loyal customer returns daily seeking something by Kipling, but neither brother can locate the books, and only Harbour cares about even trying to find specific titles. Wilbur instead finds a book about "Pickling," which the Kipling fanatic inexplicably purchases.

Another regular visitor is Alice (Shirley Henderson), who brings in books left behind by her patients but really just wants to see Harbour. Eventually, the two fall in love and get married, complicating the already cramped living conditions above the tiny shop, especially since Alice already has a young daughter, Mary (Lisa McKinlay), who provides an unbiased objective perspective at opportune times. Harbour obviously cares a great deal for his brother, so he naturally worries how the changing relationships will affect him. Despite his crudeness and detachment, Wilbur exudes charisma and a number of the women find him irresistibly sexy, so Harbour hopes that he'll find the right woman that will take care of him. To say much more would be giving away too much, so just be assured that the charming movie plays out believably without cheap shots.

What some may consider plodding, others will warmly welcome as Scherfig carefully draws out the characters so well that the viewer can relate to them as part of their own family. Although the strong undercurrent of Scottish restraint and profundity is continually present, the film contains plenty of amusing moments that just occur naturally, like the best droll humor. Much of this rests with Sives' incredible timing—his reactions to a failed drowning and to a couple of women's offbeat amorous advances, just to name a couple. And his character's appeal doesn't rely on a one-note comic performance; it grows on us gradually as he evolves and changes throughout this life-affirming work.

With its outstanding ensemble cast and treatment of working class life, Scherfig's film is reminiscent of Mike Leigh's All or Nothing. Life is full of irony and amusing moments and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself contains far more of these than any "wrist-slashing" incidents and the film avoids pretentiousness. One snotty young character gets a surprising comeuppance at Mary's birthday party to balance more serious issues, and that's the way the entire film plays out. Like any good character study, appreciative audiences will remember a number of specific scenes long afterwards while continually being reminded of life's larger issues. Despite relying on a premise that has been around almost as long as the first Neanderthal contemplated the meaning of life, Scherfig presents the message with a creative flair that will appeal to indie film lovers who appreciate well drawn characters.
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