Any movie with the title "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" really owes it to the audience to explain at some point why Wilbur wants to kill himself. Unfortunately, Wilbur never does, and neither does "Wilbur." Instead, this humanist comedy-drama from Denmark by way of Scotland effectively explores the border between whimsy and tedium.
Danish director Lone Scherfig ("Italian for Beginners"), making her English-language debut, sets her story in Glasgow, where two brothers in their 30s have taken over their father's used-book shop after his death. Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) is the good brother: kindly, attentive, a little shy. Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is his handsome bad-brother opposite, except that he's not really all that bad. He's merely, unspecifically morose, and he keeps attempting suicide in moderately "wacky" ways. Harbour is always there to pick up the pieces, even if the local suicide therapy group wants nothing to do with the caustic Wilbur.
Into their lives comes Alice, and once again actress Shirley Henderson raises the pulse of a moribund little movie with a twitch of her mousy brow. Alice is a hospital worker and single mother who wanders into the bookshop one day and falls instantly in love with Harbour. And he with her: They're two timid souls delighted to be matched. She also saves Wilbur from one of his more hapless suicide attempts. There is a marriage, and a communal living arrangement, and then a good half-turn of a plot twist about which I will say nothing, other than to note that some ironies in movies are bought a little too easily.
"Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" wants to be as shocking as its title, but it doesn't have the nerve. Everyone's too nice, for one thing, even when they're behaving badly. And since in Sives's charmingly broody performance Wilbur seems about as depressed as the
Scherfig's movies are about the way average folk forge and sever connections, and to the director's credit, she rarely condescends to her characters (although I wish I could say the same for Joachim Holbeck's glutinous score). There's a touching offhandedness about the way these people carom off one another, and to the way that contingency families are formed and reformed throughout the film. Henderson barely gets to stretch (see the current "Intermission" for that), but any of the scenes involving Moira (Julia Davis), an earnest blabbermouth nurse who briefly becomes Wilbur's love interest, are worth savoring.
In the end, though, the situations Scherfig puts the brothers in feel both tepid and forced, and the film's black comedy is more of a tasteful burnt umber. When Wilbur is resuscitated after one of his near misses and is later asked what death feels like, he responds, "There's nothing. Just blackness and silence. It's like being in Wales." The line gets a laugh, but not even the Welsh are likely to be offended.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Written by: Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen
Starring: Jamie Sives, Adrian Rawlins, Shirley Henderson
At:Harvard Square, Embassy Cinema
Running time: 104 minutes
Rated: R (language and some disturbing images)