Without consulting any physicians or pollsters, I’m willing to guess that most people don’t find suicide very romantic or poetic. Some filmmakers do, however: Remember when Audrey Hepburn tried to kill herself at the start of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, and Humphrey Bogart was quaintly amused? Didn’t make a lot of sense.
Yet the opening scene of the new film by Danish writer-director Lone Scherfig features a similar suicide attempt by Wilbur (Jamie Sives), who swigs two bottles of pills and turns on the gas to the accompaniment of oppressive, nearly whimsical music. His brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) rushes home to save him, and Wilbur is furious. Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, we’re told. We just have no idea why, and even after watching the entirety of this Glasgow-set film, we have no more insight into the big suicidal elephant in the middle of the room.
Given Scherfig’s gentle humanistic touch (as seen in Italian for Beginners, her sweetly unambitious previous Dogma film) and three fine performances from the brothers and a single mother (Shirley Henderson) who comes into their lives, it would be easy to enjoy the film as something of a black romantic comedy. But no matter the charm of the clever screenplay, we don’t really understand why Wilbur is how he is, and no amount of sophisticated storytelling can completely make up for it.
Perhaps it has something to do with the brothers’ father, who dies shortly before the opening attempt. Other attempts follow, all carrying a certain whimsical bent that ensures he’ll be saved, and we’ll be invited to chuckle. An otherwise smart character seems terribly dumb when it comes to killing himself: He specializes in found suicides, such as the hanging attempt when he happens to spy a sturdy towel rack in the hallway of the brothers’ bookshop. He doesn’t try anything surefire, such as jumping off a building—though he stands on the edge of one. Wilbur doesn’t seem so much depressed as annoyed that everybody is getting in the way of his apparent plan.
“It gets more and more humiliating every time I survive,” Wilbur complains to his brother, who decides to live with Wilbur. Soon, Harbour is with Alice, the single mother played by Henderson with her inimitable quiet grace. In many ways, she’s the star of the movie, since neither brother reveals very much about himself during their involvement.
Sives looks a lot like Robbie Williams, so Scottish women are drawn to Wilbur in droves; he even takes up with Moira (Julia Davis), an earnest, pretentious nurse in his suicide support group. In fact, his Lothario quality (and his penchant for finding women who lick his ears) is much easier to believe than his depression, or whatever it is that’s driving him to do completely inexplicable things with pills and knives.
Scherfig has tremendous gifts as a filmmaker, and she seems much less interested in the craft-for-craft’s-sake filmmaking of the Dogma school this time around. The film is downright conventional, from its camera angles to its lighting to its three-act structure. She’s got the patience to examine the dynamics of a family without resorting to platitudes, and she gets even better when things get more complicated among the three leads. She also produces a handful of killer one-liners: After recovering from another attempt in which he was briefly dead, Wilbur is asked what it’s like. “There’s nothing,” he says. “Just blackness and silence. It’s like being in Wales.”
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is just as charming as Audrey Hepburn, but its huge central flaw leaves the viewer with a disjointed experience. Perhaps suicide isn’t logical, but shouldn’t it at least be plausible?
WILBUR WANTS TO KILL HIMSELF, **.5, Jamie Sives, Adrian Rawlins, Shirley Henderson, Not Rated