Swiss Army Man

7 Jul

Flatulence abounds in Swiss Army Man, a surreal curio straight out of Sundance. I shit you not.

Daniel Radcliffe, the fresh-faced young lad who brought Harry Potter to life, plays a dead body named Manny who washes ashore and ass burps his way through the film, spouting more gas than lines — and yes, he talks. How’s that, you might ask. It’s a qualified answer and one of the many enigmatic facets and WTFs of Swiss Army Man that along with a limitless stale rush of methane, drives the film piquantly along.

To its benefit, the film revels in its weird comic absurdity. It’s never as existential or nihilistic as something more flatlined and high-brow like Waiting for Godot, but it does feel freely mined from the cranium of Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) had he been locked up in solitary with nothing but a stack of Mad magazines to pass the day. At its palpable core,Swiss Army Man is a buddy film and a touching one at that without ever submerging into the maudlin, though its arc could have been better tempered given the myriad of Sundance incubator labs it went through — it won the festival’s directing award this year after all.

We begin with a nearly unrecognizable Paul Dano, bearded and grossly weathered by the sun and sea, as Hank, a man who we assume has been stranded on an island for a long enough period of time to let the destitute of loneliness consume him to the point of wanting to off himself. Standing on an ice chest, noose around his neck, Hank’s about to do the deed when Manny arrives in the briny surf. The sight of another fellow human gives Hank pause, but his attempts to revive Manny just brings around gurgling gushes of gas. The next thing you know, Hank’s jet boarding across the ocean atop Manny, driven by sphincter propulsion. 

How and why Hank gets marooned is never really explained; we’re just there. For a moment you might imagine a plane crash or a ship sinking, but that’s just a gnat of reason that gets swatted away as we move on to the main event that the two directors (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, music-video maestros referred to as The Daniels in the hipster universe) have in store for us. And true to the film’s title, Manny has a million and one uses in the assurance of Hank’s survival. Besides being a fart-powered transport, he’s a cistern for water, his rigor mortised limbs can chop wood, and projectiles blasted from his mouth have enough force to fell game. Then there’s the matter of his very active penis, but we won’t go there.

What Swiss Army Man ultimately becomes is a strange hybrid of Cast Away andWeekend at Bernie’s. And when Manny starts to talk we begin to learn who these guys are. Hank’s clearly leaden with plenty of baggage that he can’t shake (and perhaps existentially why he’s in the forested nowhere?). Manny, on the other hand, can’t remember much; he’s an ingenue of sorts who requires the definition of very basic human concepts like “life” or “love.” He also falls for the toothsome woman who’s the background image on Hank’s iPhone (it’s at 10 percent when the film begins). The story behind that picture moves the action in pleasantly unpredictable ways, even if in whole, The Daniels don’t quite carry it through to its titillating promise.

In mood and posture, a grave yet whimsical tenor, perfectly echoed in the score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra, evokes the tang of magical realism imbued in Where the Wild Things Are and Beasts of the Southern Wild, though what’s at stake here is more weighty and rooted in the real. Swiss Army Man is a gonzoTempest that asks much of Dano and Radcliffe, who settle into their Crusoe and Friday roles with natural and genuine island-bro chemistry.

The wonderment of Hank’s journey, his universal human condition, and questions of his mental health ground the film. The Daniels have tapped into something original and moving, but in the end, one too many sophomoric scat gags detracts from the film’s charm and the craft the two capable thespians pour into the film with sweat and gas.

 

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