"Swiss Army Man" Miraculously Puts The Art In Fart

When film historians look back on “Swiss Army Man” – and they will – they might call attention to the wonderful Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood”) turning in another unforgettable performance – he plays a neurotic castaway who befriends a flatulent corpse. Maybe they’ll point to the improbably winsome screenplay and direction by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the duo credited as “Daniels”) or the daft interpolation of the thrumming vocal score into the story itself. But they’ll absolutely, positively recall a career re-defining performance from Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe,” thereafter known simply as Daniel Radcliffe.

Dano, the movie’s de facto lead, has made a career out of playing lovable losers, and his turn here is similar – and completely different. His Hank is a loopy outcast, but with a fluctuating conception of that reality. He is the antihero of his own story, leaping into action the moment a dead body washes up into his life. Never mind that he was just about to hang himself.

Or maybe Hank is the only person in the universe with a grasp on its wild truths. The highest beauty of “Swiss Army Man” is in its limitless interpretive possibilities, beginning with the strangest meet-cute in movie history but certainly not ending with it.

Hank swiftly decides to name this very dead man in a blue blazer Manny, and the screenplay jumps headlong into slapstick. Manny might be deceased, but he’s still gassy, a makeshift zombie jet ski that will propel Hank across an inlet and onto land that he believes is that much closer to his home. These first twenty minutes aren’t entirely convincing, predicated mostly on farts, coming off as a Spike Jonze-aping, lowbrow art film. But the tale ends up as deep as Hank’s delusions, delivering on its own potential as soon as Manny reanimates. And then some.

Manny’s journey back to the land of the pseudo-living begins with the revelation that he’s chockfull of potable water. Hank is thirsty and not in any position to look his H2O-spewing gift horse in the mouth, quickly learning that his new pal isn’t merely a biotic drinking fountain. No, he’s actually a gold mine of both companionship and useful bodily functions. Soon, Manny is alert, although still very dead, and Hank begins infantilizing him, imprinting various pop culture references and social mores. In short, he’s teaching a dead man how to live. It’s poetry.

There’s even a girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in this story, or at least a picture of a girl on Hank’s cell phone, whom Manny comes to believe is his significant other. The two talk at length about sex and relationships and how they’d approach women in public if they both weren’t absolute cowards. To fuse the bond between characters and moviegoers even further, there’s the practical, hysterically funny use of Manny’s body as an air rifle, a splitting maul, an erection-based compass (the film never quite explains how this works; it doesn’t need to), and more.

Yet, “Swiss Army Man” is more than left-field buddy comedy. Dano’s work is worth examining for its complexity and crooked humanity, acted as much with his stomach as his head. He’s making hundreds of instinctual choices in each scene that couldn’t possibly be scripted, from undulating facial expressions to pitch perfect line deliveries, all of which might not be deciphered on a tenth viewing of the film, let alone the first.

And then there’s Radcliffe and his stunning knack for deadpan comedy. His Manny is a miracle of vocal inflection and timing, proving that the actor is so much more than a bevy of puzzling post-Hogwarts career choices. It’s a performance that would be considered for awards attention if not for all the farting and penis references that are actually essential to the character. By the time he delivers a genuinely beautiful monologue about breaking wind, viewers might be unsure who’s hallucinating: them or Hank. (It’s Hank.) Radcliffe is next-level-good in the role, suggesting a talent that’s barely been tapped into; an actor that we’ll be watching for decades to come.

If this all sounds too good (or weird) to be true, it’s not, except for a few precious steps into over-stylized Michel Gondry territory and a clumsy finale that tries but fails to ground what’s come before. Not only does the conclusion cause all sorts of geographical problems for the film, it overexplains in a bad way, undercutting the significance of the friendship at the heart of the story.

In another film these flaws might be fatal, but this isn’t another film. This is “Swiss Army Man,” where a cadaver fights off a bear with his fiery flatulence – and we believe every second of it! The Daniels have unbelievably put the art in fart, suggesting that it’s more than coincidence that directors and stars alike all have “Dan” in their names. It’s kismet.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: June 24, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Screenwriter: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
MPAA Rating: R (for language and sexual material)