WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF

R

-By Kevin Lally


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Danish director Lone Scherfig landed on the international map with the disarming Dogme-style romance Italian for Beginners, winner of the Silver Bear at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival. For her English-language debut, Scherfig pulls off what would seem an impossible balancing act--a gentle comedy about two brothers, one compelled to attempt suicide, the other diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But those dark threads are neatly woven into the eccentric fabric of Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, a tale set in Glasgow but created by a Danish filmmaking team.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that the script by Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen was originally written in Danish, since its droll humor is so reminiscent of the work of Scottish auteur Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Local Hero). From the opening moments, the suicidal impulses of the eponymous Wilbur are never meant to be taken very seriously: He sticks his head in a gas oven, only to find that the gas supply to his apartment has expired; he jumps into a lake, and lands merely waist-deep in water. At group-therapy sessions, the relentlessly upbeat counselor declares, "I'm sure we've all grown very fond of Wilbur these past few weeks"--which is patently untrue, since his persistent suicide attempts unsettle the group and soon force his ouster. (This is kind of session where a ball of twine is tossed when it's your turn to speak, even if both your arms are in a cast.)

Wilbur moves in with his brother Harbour, who lives above a dilipidated used bookshop inherited from their recently deceased father. A frequent customer is Alice, a shy single mother who cleans the hospital at night and earns extra money by selling books the patients have left behind. Harbour falls in love with and marries Alice, who moves into the bookstore building with her young daughter, Mary. But Alice also develops an attraction to Wilbur, feelings that become even more complicated when she learns that Harbour has been hiding a dire medical diagnosis.

Play this story straight, and it would be unbearably oppressive. But Scherfig maintains a light touch that makes matters of mortality just one aspect of an everyday comic struggle. The screenplay doesn't even try to explain the despair of Wilbur, though his panic when one of his suicide attempts comes close to succeeding hints that he may not be fully committed to ending his life. And, in an irony he'd surely appreciate, the one woman who offers him reason to live happens to be married to his brother.

Except for the selfless, symbolically named Harbour and sensible little Mary, everyone in Scherfig's film is more than a little odd--from Wilbur, whose sexual reticence leads him to a fixation with licking ears, to his Danish doctor, with his laughably stiff bedside manner, to the well-meaning nurse Moira, a flake with a talent for finding the wrong words of comfort.

The entire cast is engaging. Jamie Sives, a Robbie Williams lookalike, is perhaps too handsome for the insecure Wilbur, but that only adds to the character's eccentricity. Adrian Rawlins lends an admirable humanity to the innately noble Harbour, while Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the upcoming InterMission) brings a startling third-act ferocity to Alice, a character who begins as a timid milquetoast.

Don't be put off by the title. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself dabbles in darkness, but it's a quirkily appealing Danish/Scottish diversion.

-Kevin Lally


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