Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
review by Dan Lybarger, 26 March 2004

When a typical film deals with a dark subject like suicide, you’d expect to hear moody strings droning over the soundtrack and an atmosphere that exudes lonely gloom. As Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself starts rolling, we see a solitary figure stuffing pills down his throat and turning on the gas of his stove. The strings start to blare more loudly, and the character’s self-inflicted gloom seems imminent.

A viewer who’s only watching this scene casually might imagine that we’re in for yet another dreary flick like The Hours or Sylvia. But as a would-be rescuer comes rushing into the apartment, cries over the scene and scampers about looking for a phone, a seemingly lifeless arm rises and hands him the chordless receiver.

It’s an obvious sign that the audience is in the hands of that not-so-melancholy Dane, writer-director Lone Scherfig. Her previous movie, Italian for Beginners, featured three on-screen deaths in the first 30-40 minutes, but ultimately felt droll and sunny. And even though that film was shot under the austere demands of the Dogma 95 manifesto (all handheld cameras, no prerecorded soundtrack, etc), Scherfig ended up with a movie that seemed more sweet and intelligently uplifting than arty.

This time around Scherfig has switched to a Scottish setting (although she actually shot most of it back in her native land) and is working with more conventional production techniques, but her quirky handling and low-key humor are still in force.

Her title character, played by Jamie Sives, is driving everyone else around him crazy with his quest for do-it-yourself demise. He gets kicked out to the suicide recovery group sessions because he’s so obnoxiously unrepentant. When the facilitator Moira (Julie Davis) asks him what would happen if all humanity killed themselves, he offhandedly answers, “There’d be no more group.”

He even chews out his earnestly well-meaning older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), who rescued him in the opening frames, because he finds his own continued survival humiliating. Harbour, on the other hand, probably envies Wilbur’s humiliation because he may have terminal cancer and a new wife named Alice (Shirley Henderson) and a stepdaughter (Lisa McKinlay) who stand to lose him almost as quickly as he’s entered their lives.

In the hands of a less idiosyncratic filmmaker, this situation would play like a typically maudlin film that would normally run on Lifetime instead of in a theater. Scherfig doesn’t always play the setup for laughs (Harbour’s explanation of Wilbur’s death wish is pretty harrowing), but when she does, it makes the somewhat contrived premise more agreeable and even convincing.

The story moves along predictably, but Scherfig consistently chooses to make Wilbur's evolution from a selfish whiner into a mensch seem more gradual and less strident. For example, despite his destructive and rude disposition, women flock to Wilbur because a strange magnetism that briefly trumps his thoughtlessness. Somehow no one from these legions of potential mates, including Moira and Alice, manages to straighten him out through seduction. It doesn’t hurt that Sives has the range to make Wilbur’s eventual attitude shift believable.

The script by Scherfig and fellow Dane Anders Thomas Jensen has some juicy exchanges, but there are a few gags that are probably funnier in Copenhagen than they are in Glasgow (confusing Rudyard Kipling with some sort of pickling technique just doesn’t translate). The tone shifts downward and sentimental toward the end, and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself might have benefited from the firmer ensemble approach that Scherfig adopted in Italian for Beginners. In that film, the eventual pairing of certain characters didn’t seem forced because each match had just the right amount of setup. This time around, the subplots seem a bit underdeveloped, so their resolutions seem abrupt.

Still, Wilbur Wants to Kill himself demonstrates that Scherfig has a delightfully warped sensibility that can make stock tales lively and can also make films that are filled with death but are still weirdly life affirming.

Directed by:
Lone Scherfig

Jamie Sives
Adrian Rawlins
Shirley Henderson
Lisa McKinlay
Mads Mikkelsen
Julia Davis
Susan Vidler
Robert McIntosh
Lorraine McIntosh
Gordon Brown
Mhairi Steenbock
Andrew Townsley
Coral Preston
Colin McAllister
Owen Gorman
Anne Marie Timoney
Elaine M. Ellis
Des Hamilton

Written by:
Lone Scherfig
Anders Thomas Jensen

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







www.nitrateonline.com  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.