Review: Swiss Army Man

Even as it invites snarky ridicule, Swiss Army Man dares you to buy into its singular earnestness.

Swiss Army Man
Photo: A24

In Swiss Army Man, the life of a suicidal castaway, Hank (Paul Dano), is redeemed by his relationship with a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe). Imagine saying that line out loud to someone without smirking, then consider trying to explain the film beyond its willfully strange premise: Swiss Army Man is also a buddy comedy that’s sort of a love story, but what it’s really about is our bodies, language, the life cycle of relationships, and how the essential ingredients of human connection have been corroded in the wake of the smartphone. Even as it invites snarky ridicule, the film dares you to buy into its singular earnestness.

As such, the feature directorial debut of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known as Daniels, is in the lineage of other urtexts of earnest millennial cinema. Using Radcliffe’s flatulent, pseudo-sentient cadaver like a jet ski, Hank escapes his desert island and makes landfall in a new wilderness. When the corpse, eventually dubbed Manny, shows signs of life (sprouting an active erection and uttering subverbal reactions), Hank offers him a sentimental education.

Though Hank is never quite certain whether his reanimated friend is a miracle or a mirage, his attempts to explain words and feelings to Manny reawaken him to a world of emotion deadened by the isolation of modern life and the whirlwinds of love. Like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Swiss Army Man is almost hermetically geared toward wayward souls who long to transcend their shared loneliness, even employing those directors’ penchants for handmade built environments to communicate Hank’s familiar but seemingly individuated ennui.

That the film withstands comparisons to its divisive forebears is a minor miracle, one due in no small part to the directors’ devotion to their feature-length poop joke. As illustrated in their extraordinary video for DJ Snake and Lil John’s “Turn Down for What,” there’s something inherently bawdy about simply having a body. Our online avatars are sculpted in precise lighting and flattering angles, and they speak in phrases that are either carefully crafted or impeccably bland. “You can’t just say whatever comes into your head,” Hank tells Manny at one point. “That’s bad talking.” Our corporeal selves, however, are more accident-prone, less well-spoken, sweatier, smellier. The dramatic apex of the film’s bromance occurs when Manny arrives at a peak of emotional wherewithal and is devastated to realize that, despite his incessant flatulence, Hank is still embarrassed to fart around him.

When Manny’s expulsions propel a trip across the ocean, or after his squirrelly erection becomes the compass that guides Hank home, the filmmakers insist on the primacy and nearly endless utility of the body. This idea even motivates Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s ingenious a cappella soundtrack, which loops its character’s utterances into Edward Sharpe-style folk songs that are amusing enough to overcome their insufferable tenor.

Throughout, Hank spews torrents of emotional diarrhea, but Kwan and Scheinert find endlessly dynamic ways to illustrate how difficult it is for him to distinguish cultural detritus from actual feelings. He twists Rednex’s “Cotton Eyed Joe” and John Williams’s theme from Jurassic Park into shared memories, and uses the orange dust from of a bag of cheese puffs as a stand-in for a mother’s love. He then creates dioramas out of trash and twigs—totems to the woman, Sarah Johnson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who he stalks on social media but has never actually spoken to. He even impersonates Sarah, and while his sentiments point to how wounded Hank is, they literally get Manny’s blood pumping. Seeing his isolation through new eyes, Hank realizes both the terror and the mundane wonders of having a body.

As its rather corny and elemental morals suggest, Swiss Army Man flirts recklessly with wan solipsism. For one, it’s impossible to groove entirely with a film that contains a line of dialogue like “Before the Internet, every girl was a lot more special,” but, then, part of Kwan and Scheinert’s point is that, before the internet, people needed to interact with IRL human beings in order to properly absorb just how obnoxious that statement is.

Once the filmmakers thrust Hank and Manny back into the real world, Swiss Army Man attempts to illustrate how our mediated culture has warped our inability to listen to one another, but the result is too logistically confusing to land as the devastating allegory it’s meant to be. The disappointing, elusive nature of the film’s finale stands in marked contrast to the rest of Kwan and Scheinert’s rather visionary achievement, which wrings tremendous vitality and heartfelt transparency from its mopey and emotionally crippled hero.

 Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead  Director: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert  Screenwriter: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert  Distributor: A24  Running Time: 96 min  Rating: R  Year: 2016  Buy: Video

Christopher Gray

Christopher Gray is an event coordinator for Frontier in Bushwick, Maine. His writing has also appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes.

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