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Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

So pull up a seat

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Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is not only the name of Lone Scherfig's new Scottish comedy, it is also a perfect encapsulation of what transpires through most of the film. If that title seems a little too direct, and a little less grandiose than, say, The Passion of the Christ or Alien vs. Predator, then it also illuminates the basic difference between this movie and those. Wilbur may sound, at first, like an after-school special starring Troy McClure, but it ends up being a deft mixture of sadness and charming humor about delicate subjects that are rarely handled well through comedy.

If one were to look at Wilbur in terms of plot alone, it certainly doesn't sound like a comedy. Wilbur (Jamie Sives) is a smart, sexually magnetic Scot who compulsively attempts to kill himself solely, it seems, because he can't bear the embarrassment of facing his fellow patients in the psyche ward after each failed attempt. He makes two attempts even before the end of the opening credits, then tells his brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins), "It gets more humiliating every time I survive." Harbour, who recently inherited a dilapidated bookstore from the pair's ailing father, harbors (the name doesn't seem coincidental) his little brother in the back to keep an aye on him--because remember, this is Scotland. Soon, Harbour courts and marries a young single mother, Alice (Shirley Henderson, Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter) takes her (plus one) into the house, and she and Wilbur become lovers between his self-immolation sessions. All this time Harbour is hiding a horrible secret about his own health, and the bookstore is on the verge of bankruptcy.

As plots go, it's not exactly Wayne's World, but Scherfig keeps Wilbur from flushing into either insensitive slapstick or sentimentality by never letting the characters slow down enough to turn on the schlock-spewing parts of their brains. There are no drawn-out death speeches, no lingering goodbyes. Instead, Scherfig leaps lightly from one episodic scene to another with little regard for the audience's sense of time or continuity. She doesn't dwell on Wilbur's psychotic tendencies, or the psychological complexities of his relationship with Alice or Harbour. We only see the characters in action, and are left to judge for ourselves--and given that they are all charming, vibrant and incredibly well acted, it's hard to hate anybody.

The production of Wilbur is so simple, so human, that it ends up feeling more like a good episode of Masterpiece Theater than a film--a feeling aided by the thin, unassuming cello score on which the film floats. It's hard to convey just how funny and compelling Wilbur is when judged on its surface elements alone, but trust me: somewhere within all the death is a life-affirming film.