Film Review: 'Swiss Army Man'
Dead, farting Daniel Radcliffe.
It’s the nutshell that’s been shouted from the top of the world ever since Swiss Army Man made its debut at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival – so many times, in fact, that it’s almost cliché. What the four-word description doesn’t do besides shock and befuddle, however, is foreshadow just how emotionally resonant Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s joint-directed (and joint-written) film really is, with its enlightened musings on life and all of its little idiosyncrasies. The drama/comedy is a millennial theme song, scoffing at more ”serious” stories that aim equally as high, but miss the mark and fail to ensnare hearts and imaginations because of it. Ironically, the film doesn't fully realize its potential in the end - and by doing so, undermines the "it" factor that made Swiss Army Man so magical the rest of the time.
Helping us along that journey is an at-first disenchanted and suicidal man, Hank (Paul Dano, in a goofy but honest role), stranded on a desert island and no hope of rescue in sight. He’s so clumsy, even, that he can’t hang himself without the noose snapping. Cue a suited corpse (Radcliffe) washing up on shore just in time (with appropriately-timed farting sounds and all), giving Hank something to care and live for at last.
But this is a corpse with magical powers of survival: his flatulence lets him ride the waves like a motorboat (and getting Hank off the island to open the credits); he dispenses fresh water; he chops firewood like a lumberjack. He even begins to talk (in which we learn his name is Manny), and has no recollection of a past life. It’s what leads Manny to ask questions of Hank like a toddler seeing the world for the first time – sometimes annoyingly, but mostly inappropriately. It’s absolutely captivating that Swiss Army Man, with its silly poignancy and raunchy sense of humor, can relate to and comment on matters of life, love, and happiness. Kwan and Scheinert (who are jointly titled as “Daniels,” like a young Coen brothers team) make a surreal trip of a movie that can make faces sore with smiles.
Also striking a memorable chord is the film's inspired score that builds off of natural sounds from the forests Hank and Manny traverse, as well as their joyous humming. It's a kind of great symphony – one laced with fart noises and conducted by a flailing, posthumous erection (!) from Manny, whenever he looks at an old copy of the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated they found. It's uncommon for a movie to be so out of the ordinary and still speak to our life experiences, and it's even rarer for a movie to master that.
However, all the magic ends when an underwhelming and frankly slipshod third act nearly brings down the entire Daniels' handiwork. It's where the plot of making it home and find a long-lost love, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, noticeably worse than her turn in 10 Cloverfield Lane)m finds its resolution; whether or not it's a happy ending hardly matters, as the scenes are devoid of the wit and abnormal ingenuity that made Swiss Army Man so special in the first place. Lacking these, the movie comes oh-so-incredibly close to delivering us to the promised land of cinematic bliss.
It’s not just enough to say “just watch the first two-thirds of the movie, and you’ll be fine;” what the third act presents, intentionally or not, appears to undercut the magic that Swiss Army Man relies on for its emotional validity. After viewing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to reflect upon the rest of the film without questioning the fundamental nature of what their world even is. Thing is, Swiss Army Man is so unorthodox anyway that it could have ended at what at first appears to be its true climactic scene, and we wouldn’t have had any second guesses. There’s no doubting the incredible strengths of Swiss Army Man: a silly and melodic score, mesmerizing cinematography, a zinger of a screenplay (the rare quotable indie movie?), and the Dano/Radcliffe team-up. The film has all of the tools at its disposal to enthrall and succeed, but it’s woefully missing a strong, solid ending that’s an exclamation point on a hell of a sentence.
To its credit, Swiss Army Man doesn’t want to be your typical movie, and it’s not worried if you can't get into it just because it's so downright bizarre. What laurels it does have, it can rest on easily. But the film has a short shelf life, and while you might never have that first-viewing experience again, it’s at least nice to say you had it. The effect is swift and ephemeral, and like life, it'll flash you by. So what they say about life is just as true for this movie: enjoy it while you can.
Rated R. 97 minutes.
Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.
Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mary Elizabeth WInstead.