Swiss Army Man? What a Tool

In the therapeutic tree house with Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe.

Swiss Army Man, the movie that had audiences and critics scratching their heads and groping for adjectives when it debuted at Sundance, is now among us.

But before we get down to the exploratory surgery, let’s get a few of the movie’s most dubious talking points/stumbling blocks out of the way. First and foremost, the farts. When shipwrecked everyman Hank (Paul Dano) is surprised, in the midst of committing suicide, by a corpse that has washed up on the beach (Radcliffe), the first thing Hank notices about his new companion “Manny” is that he’s emitting gas at a furious rate — violent farts that cause Manny to shiver and shake. The flatulence never really lets up, even after Hank rides the inert Manny to another shore, via outboard ass-blast power, and they begin the next phase of their micro-adventure.

That brings us to the writing. Hank and Manny go through a long bit of soul-searching, psycho-dramatic role-playing and whatnot out there in the woods — turns out Manny, though dead, can talk — mostly having to do with Hank’s miserable life. Dano excels at this in an actorly way, despite the persistent infantilism of their chats. The juvie-campout comparing of notes (masturbation, girlfriends, Hank’s lonely childhood, etc.) is something the tag team writer-directors, music-vid makers Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan, obviously had in them and needed to let out, like the farts.

While we’re waiting for this to pass, we take note of the scenario’s similarity to a wide range of other films, not only Cast Away, All Is Lost, and Weekend at Bernie’s, but also movie-munchy junk food like The Beaver and Ted. Manny is Hank’s sock puppet, the best friend he always needed. Aww.

Absurdism is risky business, especially in 2016. There’s so much competition. In this case that tactic is a convenient, hipster-friendly mask for what is essentially a pretty standard coming-of-age drama with a corny, feel-better denouement. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the Daniels’ absurdist impulses, except that the play-house stuff goes on too long and leads to a denouement they should have avoided at all costs. Swiss Army Man is more interesting to think about than to actually watch, but hard to swallow in any case, even as an allegory. And when we get to the point of wishing for an allegory, any allegory ever, we know we’re in dangerous waters.

Dano wins the acting prize, such as it is, with his grizzled perplexity. Radcliffe isn’t quite the stiff he was set up to be. Mary Elizabeth Winstead gets trapped in a thankless role. Larkin Seiple’s cinematography is sharp and appropriately skewed, as are Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s musical interludes. There’s a bear attack left over from The Revenant and a curious narrative resemblance to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The odd odyssey of this two-man primal therapy group (what? No drums?) may be just erratic enough to help us overlook the twelve-year-old-boys’ point of view. If not, we’re left with Manny’s injunction: “Everything turns to shit eventually.” Any film nerd like you or me, if we looked hard enough, could conceivably find a point of interest somewhere in here. But we’ve got better things to do than waste our time with Swiss Army Man.


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