‘Swiss Army Man’
Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe
4 (out of 5) Globes
Originality can be overrated. It’s safe to say there’s nothing on this earth remotely like “Swiss Army Man,” unless there are other Sundance shockers in which Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse with an erection that doubles as a handy compass. But is ingenuity enough? Should we be seduced by something only because literally no one has ever put it on a screen before? Can a movie subsist on Harry Potter gas and gizmo-weens alone?
The answer to these rhetorical questions is no. Luckily the film’s makers seem to know it. First-time feature directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — jointly known simply as “Daniels” — have two plans of attack. Firstly, the farts are just the beginning. Daniels have much, much more up their sleeves. Paul Dano plays Hank, a suicidal sad sack who gains a new lease on life when he happens upon death itself, in the form of a stiff (Radcliffe). It’s no ordinary corpse: Nicknamed Manny, he seems to be coming back to life, starting with a gastrointestinal apocalypse that peppers the hell out of the movie’s first reel.
But as the title promises, Manny has other powers. He’s a veritable smartphone. Along with his aforementioned literal divining rod, he can shoot objects (usually phallic) from his mouth or be used as a jetski propelled by his explosive flatulence. His mouth can gush up fresh water like a fountain to hydrate Hank as they traipse about first a deserted island and later the woods. Soon Manny can talk, too, though he has no memory of his former life and his speech and movements are constrained by the fact that he used to be a dead guy. (Radcliffe, ever game to lead an interesting post-“Potter” life, proves a fine physical comedian, especially the way he delivers lines through a permanently open mouth.)
In other words, rather than offer one or two or even three insane hooks to carry viewers over their film, Daniels offer a couple dozen. Mixing inspirations from Michel Gondry and Jan Svankmajer without descending into cheap homage, “Swiss Army Man” never lets up, never gets tired, keeps bombarding you with “what maniac thinks this stuff up?” nuttiness. But even that wouldn’t be enough for it to be good. It needs something else.
That brings us to the second thing Daniels do: They mash lowbrow with highbrow, rooting their scatological antics in a combination of deep feeling and even deeper existential dread. Hank and Manny bond, but theirs is no mere bromance. In fact it goes to the places upon which bromances are too gay panic-y to tred, plus other places too emphatically weird to summarize coherently. They also share absurd chats, with Manny inquiring about the ways of man, which lead to Douglas Adams-y observations about the ridiculousness of society, manners, “Jurassic Park,” our disgusting bodies and existence itself.
Not that “Swiss Army Man” is an airtight statement on being alive, or whatever it is it’s trying to say. There’s so much hurled at us that it frequently feels like it has no center of gravity. But cut through the thicket Daniels have created and you can just barely spot a film with an agenda, and one that’s more unique than simply having the guy from a beloved kids’ franchise go blue. As their film turns serious but still wacky, emotional but not quite emo, Daniels ask you to find sympathy for Hank, not because he’s another sad, lonely white guy with girl problems, but because, as it ultimately becomes clear, he’s truly and powerfully messed-up — someone who feels in his element far outside of civilization. This is a wild ride, often as bumpy as the one Hank takes while astride a farting Manny skipping across the ocean like a hurled rock. But it’s going somewhere.