Alibi V.25 No.26 • June 30-July 6, 2016 

Film Review

Swiss Army Man

Dano and Radcliffe team up for exceedingly corporeal comedy

Swiss Army Man

Directed by Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert

Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe

Swiss Army Man
A boy ... and his body.

Imagine, if you will, Cast Away crossed with Weekend at Bernie’s. ... Now forget that entirely, because it doesn’t get you nearly close enough to the kinetic, off-kilter oddness that is Swiss Army Man. This seriocomic feature is the unique (to say the least) work of short comedy filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who have contributed to “Childrens Hospital,” “NTSF:SD:SUV” and “Funny or Die Presents...”. (They also directed DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s bawdy video “Turn Down For What.”) Their debut film hits theaters after a polarizing debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and its reception among the general public will fall into one of two camps: great amusement or deep befuddlement.

The film stars master indie film emoter Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, Love & Mercy) as a seemingly hopeless man stranded on a deserted island. Hank is at the end of his rope—literally. He’s about to hang himself. At that fateful moment, however, he spots a body washed up on the beach. Thinking his isolation is at an end, Hank forestalls the suicide attempt and rushes to meet his new best friend and savior. Unfortunately, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) turns out to be an excessively flatulent corpse. But wait. Manny is no ordinary dead body. He's a magical stiff, which Hank discovers when he harnesses Manny’s bloated, gassy body to race across the ocean like a jet ski. No, really. And this is all before the opening credits.

Hank and Manny wash up on the coast of what looks like the Pacific Northwest, but Hank’s still got to make his way to civilization. Naturally, he turns to his dead friend for assistance. In due time Manny comes in handy as a canteen, a fire starter, a gas-powered grappling hook, a hammer and even scuba gear. Yeah, it’s pretty much impossible to describe. You just have to be there. Eventually, and for just as logical reasons as the other stuff, Manny starts talking to Hank. This leads us to believe that Manny is either the grossest miracle ever, or our pal Hank has gone irredeemably bonkers.

Weird as it sounds in concept, Swiss Army Man is an unexpectedly touching exercise in true friendship

Weird as it sounds in concept, Swiss Army Man is an unexpectedly touching exercise in true friendship. Over the course of their adventure, Hank confesses the string of hardships and self-doubts that led him to flee his life back home and become stuck, starving and dehydrated, out in the middle of nowhere. In his various attempts to restart dead Manny’s memories—and as byproduct, provide more magical abilities—Hank delivers a crash-course in what it means to be a living, breathing human being. He hums the theme song to Jurassic Park. He reminisces about the sense memory of cheese puff dust on his fingertips. He attempts to explain the concept of masturbation. He recreates illusion of civilization with empty milk cartons and abandoned water bottles. It’s about mortality and communication and love and simple human connectedness. At the same time, the film pelts us with an unending barrage of punchlines about farts, poop and boners. It’s like the world’s most existential filthy joke. And it would be easier to dismiss if it weren’t so earnestly and skillfully assembled.

The Daniels, Kwan and Scheinert, treat the whole rude affair with a straight-faced sincerity. The actors really give it their all. Radcliffe is confusingly good in a role that doesn’t allow him to, you know, move or blink or anything. Dano plumbs the depths of his consistently hangdog personality to deliver one sad sack of a lost soul—the exact sort of loser who would come to think of a rotting corpse as his best friend. The cinematography throughout is gorgeous, all luminous and green and earthy. The production design shows great fits of imagination. For the most part, we’re lost in endless, trash-strewn forests—which afford our protagonists plenty of opportunity to bodge together all sorts of bizarro, “Gilligan’s Island” creations. Swiss Army Man has got the surreal, hermetically intellectualized feel of a Spike Jonze movie (Being John Malkovich or Adaptation. or Where the Wild Things Are). Only with a much dirtier sense of humor. It’s The Aristocrats, as told by somebody with a Ph.D.

Things take a turn for the darker and more realistic (eh, sort of) toward the end. At that point it’s debatable whether Kwan and Scheinert really stick the landing. The twisty resolution is a bit confusing and the allegory about communication and connection loses a bit of its earlier, magical realist punch. Still, it continues to score points for originality and pure, let-it-all-hang-out ballsiness. Swiss Army Man may not be this year’s best creation, but it’s certainly one of the craziest.