Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
Like an earnest teenager trying to break into modeling, the new English-language movie by Danish director Lone Scherfig and her co-writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, seems to be experimenting with different names. The onscreen title is Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. But this apparently made them nervous at ThinkFilm, the movie’s American distributor; the title on the press materials is simply Wilbur. Then again, the poster gives the whole title but puts everything after Wilbur’s name in parentheses, as if hoping no one will notice that part about Wilbur killing himself. It’s not exactly truth in advertising, but I can’t help sympathizing. With or without the suicide angle on the posters, this movie is going to be a tough sell.
Wilbur North (Jamie Sives) lives in Glasgow, where his brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) runs the bookstore he inherited from their deceased father. As the film opens, we see one of Wilbur’s numerous suicide attempts: He’s guzzling pills while turning on the gas in his flat. The attempt is interrupted when the coin-operated gas meter runs out just as Wilbur sits down next to the open oven, and he has to frantically rummage through several pairs of pants to find enough change to get it flowing again.
Shortly thereafter, a phone call to the bookstore sends Harbour galloping out of the office to break a window in Wilbur’s front door in the nick of time.
After Wilbur gets out of the hospital (where even his suicide-survivor therapy group has become fed up with him and kicked him out), he moves in with Harbour in the small apartment above the bookstore. Then Alice (Shirley Henderson) comes along.
A steady customer who supports herself and her daughter Mary (Lisa McKinlay) by selling Harbour the books that she scavenges, Alice becomes more desperate, and closer to Harbour, after she’s fired from her menial cleaning job (and after she saves Wilbur from hanging himself). Soon, Alice and Harbour get married, and she and Mary move in with the brothers over the bookstore. Wilbur slashes his wrists in the bathtub on their wedding night.
Along about this time, I think people in the audience could be forgiven for wishing that Wilbur had used a gun. Not because Wilbur himself is such a bad guy (and certainly not to make light of real-life suicide attempts), but simply because, by this time, it is beginning to look like Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is just treading water and getting drearier by the minute.
I don’t want to give away too much here; suffice it to say that Wilbur himself, after tentatively dating a couple of decent but unsuitable women (Julia Davis is especially amusing as a nurse at the hospital, who blabs a key plot point that one of the brothers doesn’t want known), becomes infatuated with his new sister-in-law. And she, while not wanting to hurt Harbour, responds to Wilbur’s needy urgency. The way Scherfig and Jensen work out this situation, though baldly contrived, does have a kind of logic all its own. But it’s really only a kind of logic.
Scherfig and Jensen wrote their script in Danish first and then translated and transplanted it when a chance came up to get Scottish financing. But the film still seems translated from a foreign tongue. The brothers’ names, for example: Have you ever known or heard of anyone named “Harbour”? The name seems chosen (besides the arch and obvious symbolism for the nurturing brother) just because it has the same last syllable as “Wilbur,” despite the fact that no one in the United Kingdom would be likely to use it. Also, when a customer in the shop asks for a book about Kipling, Wilbur gives him one on pickling instead. No one born to English would ever make such a mistake—or, for that matter, put such a strained and pointless joke in a screenplay; it makes no sense and depends on a similarity of sounds that English-speakers don’t even notice.
That’s the level of humor in Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself: a strain for laughs by people who, however fluent they may be in conversation, can’t really tell a joke. And that’s the level of drama, too: a “slice of life” from filmmakers who, however earnest their intentions, can’t offer anything but cheerless Celtic proletarian whimsy.