“Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself”, but just can’t get the job done, in this engaging black comedy from director Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”). He tries overdosing on pills, sucking on fumes, hanging, drowning, and even the old stand-by: slitting his wrists. But nothing. Nada. No go. There’s just too much life in Wilbur for it to be willed away in such a vile and selfish act. But what is it about this rude and rather antagonistic man-child that continually rejects the notion of death? What is it really, that brings Wilbur back from brink time after time, even as the physical is attacked from without and within? With Lone Scherfig behind the camera, it’s becoming clearer and clearer, that the answer, quite simply, is love.
Wilbur (the magnetic Jamie Sives) is a troubled, twenty-something Scottish lad who lives with his older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) in the back of a used bookstore in Glasgow. The film begins just after the brothers’ father has passed away, leaving them, for better or worse, in charge of the struggling shop. Harbour, whose very name suggests the safe haven that he is, assumes day-to-day shop duties, while Wilbur half-heartedly works as a nursery school teacher, though he professes to dislike kids. For reasons I won’t divulge here, Wilbur tries to end his life every once in awhile in the various standard ways listed above. But thanks to the rock solid love and vigilance of Harbour, Wilbur always survives, much to his dismay. The Sisyphean routine continues until cute single mom Alice (Shirley Henderson) and her precocious daughter Mary (Lisa McKinlay) drift into the brothers’ lives. In no time, Harbour and Alice are married and the four make an unlikely family unit, still living in the bookstore. Life is bliss, or at least at bit closer to it anyway, until, Da Da Daaa, cancer strikes! (Yup, that sturdiest of weepie machinations.) The tragically stricken Harbour is reluctantly hospitalized while Mary and Wilbur find comfort, as well as a little sumthin sumthin, in each other back home. As an affair, it’s far from sleazy and actually quite lovely and satisfying.
“Wilbur” is not quite the darker-than-dark comedy that it’s billed to be, or that the first few minutes might lead you to believe. So, hipster cynics, you’ll need to put your cynicism on hold or else tread no further, this might be out of your emotional realm. When you get right down to it, yes, “Wilbur” may be formulaic and manipulative and even a bit simple-minded in the end. But how can one cruelly reject a film that is so sweet, tender, and funny as hell while at the same time escaping the trappings of Hollywood schmaltz? “Wilbur” wants to love and be loved, but it never stoops to puppy eyes. In fact, there’s nary a puppy to be found. And it’s equally hard to dismiss the dynamic, star-making debut from Jamie Sives. In a tricky role that required him to be simultaneously infuriating and irresistible to all, Sives pulls it off like a seasoned pro. He’s not merely playing Wilbur, he is Wilbur. It’s a cliché, to be sure, but in this case it’s so true. Some critics have claimed foul play, questioning the adoration he receives from nearly every woman in the film. Well, I may have agreed until a certain female I know (okay, my wife) exclaimed upon seeing Sives in a photo, “Who is that guy?!?” Case closed.
Not to be outshone by a mere rookie, the rest of the cast is wonderful and sublimely chosen. As Alice, Shirley Henderson is sexy, fragile, and flawlessly flawed. We’re with her every step of the way, as she struggles as a single mom, falls in love once, and indulges her passions with Wilbur. The young Ms. McKinlay is utterly assured, and never cutesy, as the wise-beyond-her-years Mary. Rounding out the foursome is Adrian Rawlins, who’s just as good as his fellow cast members as the older brother Harbour, though points must be deducted from screenwriters Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, for writing not a character but rather a saintly caricature. Nonetheless, “Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself” is a little charmer wrapped in wolf’s clothing. Just don’t be put off by that morbid title.