It's a good year in American art houses for films with premises that sound like they were sourced from a Dadaist Twitter feed. First came The Lobster, depicting a scenario in which single people are condemned to be surgically transformed into animals. Now here's Swiss Army Man, in which a flatulent corpse shows up just in time to show a depressed young man the meaning of life.
Comedy-video duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert make their feature debut with this film that seems partly inspired by Adam Sandler fart-fests, partly by earnest indie flicks and partly by the fun of mocking both genres. At the Sundance Film Festival, Swiss Army Man reportedly caused a mass walkout. But viewers who aren't intrinsically opposed to toilet humor may actually find this curiosity pretty funny — and, thanks to the conviction of its lead actors, sometimes weirdly poignant.
Paul Dano plays man-child Hank, a lone castaway on a speck of a desert island. Like so many millennial protagonists, he's defined by a free-floating sadness: When he attempts to kill himself, the only memory that flashes before his eyes is one of sitting on the bus plugged to his phone.
Then the corpse washes up on shore. Played by Daniel Radcliffe (yes, the guy who made his name as Harry Potter) and christened "Manny" by Hank, the stiff has marvelous properties. So powerful is Manny's flatulence that Hank rides him "like a Jet Ski" to the mainland; his mouth spouts freshwater, and (steel yourselves) his erections work like a compass. There's still life left in Manny, and he wants Hank to educate him about a world he doesn't remember. To make use of the corpse's life-saving powers, Hank must immerse himself in memories and re-creations of a life that he himself never really knew how to live.
That's where the film's absurdity shades into something genuine, in large part because neither actor holds back or winks at the audience. In Dano's long history of playing misfit characters, Hank is probably the least cool of them all, his emotions goofily transparent. And Radcliffe manages to make a pasty-faced corpse earnest and sympathetic. With his ungainly, half-alien body and naïve enthusiasm for everyday human rituals, he suggests a hornier version of E.T. — the best friend an overgrown kid like Hank could have.
The growing bromance of these two comes complete with twee chanting on the soundtrack and painstakingly handmade props reminiscent of Michel Gondry movies. Whenever these elements threaten to transform the movie into a life-affirming celebration of imagination and whimsy, however, Manny's bodily antics bring it down to earth with a gassy roar. Rabelais might have approved.
Swiss Army Man sags a little in the middle, but, toward the end, it takes a few neat turns that put everything in a fresh perspective. The film riffs irreverently on a subgenre of movies about people who learn how to live in modern civilization only by leaving it, from Cast Away to Where the Wild Things Are. (Even the overbearing Jurassic Park theme music gets trotted out at one point.)
It's sometimes tempting to dismiss it all as a big joke, a ready-made meme. But then comes the scene when Hank re-creates his bus-ride memory for Manny (complete with headphones crafted from vines). In the original memory, the world beyond Hank was out of focus. For the re-creation, Hank has painted the windows of his improvised "bus" with scenic vistas, which Manny stares at in Spielbergian wonder. Having ignored the world when it was really there, Hank dreams it back into existence — and, just for an instant, the viewer feels that wonder, too.