Swiss Army Man (2016): Written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Running Time: 97 minutes.
This movie begins with Paul Dano riding Daniel Radcliffe across the ocean like a literal human motorboat, propelled across the breaking waves by Radcliffe’s seemingly endless supply of explosive flatulence.
If that sentence was enough to convince you that you can never meet this film on its own terms, turn back now, for you shall not be warned again. Yep, it’s one of those.
Alright, I should probably back up a bit first. Hank (Paul Dano) has apparently been stranded on a deserted island for some time, and is at the point of preparing to hang himself from a branch, when the waves suddenly toss a human corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) onto the beach in front of him. Despite his disappointment that it is, indeed, a corpse, and not a fellow survivor (for so it seems, at first), he recognizes an opportunity for escape when the body begins to fart incessantly, pushing itself back out to sea. This is the lead-in to the motorboat scene, which doubles as the opening credits. They do reach land, but are clearly still very far from civilization.
Unsure of what to do next, Hank decides to keep dragging the corpse along with him, and gets the shock of his life later on when it actually does start moving and speaking. He affectionately dubs his new friend “Manny,” and soon realizes that this strange body has a variety of powers perfectly suited to his efforts to survive. In addition to the aforementioned flatulence, Manny can spew fresh water out of his mouth like a geyser at will, is super flexible and has the strength to chop wood, stones, and other materials, can have anything shoved into his mouth and shot out of him like a cannonball, can create sparks to start fires with his hands, and also periodically gets massive erections capable of sensing the way through the woods back home, like some sort of erotic compass (I did warn you).
This is that rare film so wholly unique as to be truly beyond classification. Many of the adventures Hank and Manny have together could be broadly described as survival tales (they are, after all, lost in the woods for most of the film’s running time), but it’s also a love story, an exploration of friendship and dealing with questions of self-worth, and a musing on the general weirdness of life itself. It’s also a rip-roaringly good comedy, so committed to its own zaniness that laughter is pretty much the only appropriate response. I haven’t seen a movie so unapologetically committed to its disregard for the laws of natural science since Mood Indigo.
This really only works because the movie absolutely refuses to explain the rules of its world. What is Manny? A human? An angel? Something else? Is he actually a corpse, or is he biologically alive? Where do his powers come from and how do they work? We never know, and we’re so much better off for that, because getting bogged down in those sorts of details would ruin the fun. Whoever (or whatever) he is, he seems to have no memories regarding where he came from, so once he wakes up and starts talking, Hank quickly realizes he has to basically teach Manny about life, the world, and people from scratch, as if he were a newborn infant with the body and language ability of an adult.
The montages where this is addressed are what may make or break the film for many viewers- some will find it unbearably cheesy, perhaps too earnest or naïve for its own good, others will find it tearfully heartwarming, and many will likely just find them weird and without purpose. It’s also a ready excuse for the film to go off on tangents about farting, pooping, and masturbating without feeling like a pandering reach for the 12-year-old-boy demographic. That being said, it might be sound for me to make a general proclamation here that anyone seriously put off by any sort of discussion about genitals and their various functions would do well to avoid this movie, because truly, there will be no mercy.
For all the clear passion that goes into the film’s ecstatic editing and the fascination of seeing how weirdly they use CGI to bring the film’s most bizarre moments to life, what anchors this movie and makes it rise above its inherently pulpy nature are its two leads. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe achieve a perfect symbiosis between their performances, a balance that allows the strange, STRANGE things they talk about to be both funny and serious without ever veering into being too ridiculous. A single misstep by either of them would probably have brought the whole affair crashing down around their feet, but by God, like a nude high-wire act over Niagara Falls, somehow they pulled this crazy stunt off. Radcliffe in particular has made odd, offbeat projects like this his calling card since Harry Potter ended, and this just might be his best performance in his best film yet.
Swiss Army Man is fun, intelligent, daring, bizarre, challenging, and unrelentingly in-your-face, and I love it for that. There are a great many people who will see this movie, hate it, read this review praising it, and then stand ready to proclaim me a lunatic. But as the great and wise Horton the Elephant once sang;
They all call me a lunatic/
Okay, call me a lunatic/
But I have wings, and I can fly/
Around the moon and far beyond the sky.
And after seeing this movie, I certainly intend to fly, my friends. Possibly with the aid of Eternal Magic Farts, but I’ll never tell.