Cast: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Director: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Swiss Army Man is a very special, very unique, bad film. It’s badness is a singular kind of badness which mistakes a kernel of an idea concerning stunted masculinity and loving yourself--farts and all--for something meaningful. Sure, it’s been billed as the “farting corpse movie” since it’s notorious Sundance Film Festival premiere, but the gonzo central conceit is really only half the story. Writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert (or “The Daniels”) use the WTF sensibility of the initial premise in order to pile on the cute fantasy, twee indie pop music, and banal life lessons in a way which reaches levels of extreme cringe-worthiness. This thing often plays like the deranged step-brother of Ben Stiller’s “we are all connected” opus The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and that’s not meant as a compliment.
There are aspects to admire here. For one thing, stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe fully throw themselves at the mercy of the filmmakers, and in turn, deliver sincere and wholly committed performances. Dano takes a thoroughly neurotic man-child and makes him approachable in a way which starves off precociousness, and Radcliffe emerges as a crafty physical comedian; contorting his face and body like a human pretzel with gusto. Credit should also be given to the Daniels for coming up with such a loopy premise and then following through on it, although perhaps there’s good reason why no one else has attempted something like this before. Sometimes, simply coming up with a batshit idea for a film isn’t enough. One needs to justify the existence of such an idea as a feature-length narrative.
As the movie opens, Hank (Dano) is stranded somewhere on a deserted island and is moments away from suicide when he spots Manny (Radcliffe) washing up on shore, stiff as a piece of dry wood. Unleashing bouts of powerful gas, the poor deceased bastard gives Hank a reason for hope again; which in turn leads to a fantastical adventure full of yes, farting, but also lessons about masturbation shame, the inability to talk to girls, and neglectful fathers. However, it becomes apparent that Manny isn’t dead after all, but operates as a kind of alter-ego version of Hank’s id, offering matter-of-fact observations about loving yourself and the weirdness of your own body as well as providing a steady stream of usable water and a rock hard erection acting as a compass. If all of this sounds truly bizarre, well, it is, but not in compelling fashion. The film has one joke and mines it for an absurd running time. Again, this may have worked in short form or as a music video (per the filmmakers background), but as a feature, Swiss Army Man has nowhere to go and spends a hell of a lot of time getting there.
The film’s biggest problem is that it seems to think it’s about something, or perhaps more crucially, the Daniels believe they’ve unlocked some key aspects of the human condition. Had the picture been funnier and more clever, acting as a kind of grotesque buddy comedy, then it’s grasping for universal truths might have felt subversive. Unfortunately, the Daniels double-down on the suppressed masculinity/ romantic passivity angle, culminating in a final 20 minutes which are inexcusably infantile, even by this film’s ridiculous standards. In between flapping butt holes and navigating boners, Swiss Army Man also wants to force feed us simplistic life lessons, and that’s something worse than death.