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Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Directed by: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

Premise: A lonely man (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island until he discovers a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that is imbued with supernatural powers. They become friends and try to find a way home.

What Works: The premise of Swiss Army Man sounds like Weekend at Bernie’s but even though this film is a comedy that features a corpse Swiss Army Man is an altogether different kind of picture. It’s a movie that frequently relies on the comedy of the human body—namely gassing and puking and the like—but the filmmakers combine that lowbrow humor with thoughtful dialogue that is cast within the framework of a buddy comedy. In many respects Swiss Army Man has a lot in common with movies like Cast Away or Life of Pi; it is the story of a man who has been isolated from the rest of civilization and as a matter of sanity he forms a relationship with someone unable to communicate. In Cast Away and Life of Pi those were a volleyball and a Bengal tiger, respectively, and in Swiss Army Man it is a magical corpse. Also as in those other films, the lead character’s isolation becomes an opportunity for him to work through his anxieties. That is where Swiss Army Man excels. Hank, played by Paul Dano, is a lonely and introverted man who is apparently stranded on a deserted island and prepares to commit suicide. Upon discovering the corpse of Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe, he abandons his life ending plans and journeys inland with the body in tow. Manny gradually reanimates, starting with his gastric functions and later recovering the power of speech. The two become pals although it is unclear if Manny is really alive or just a delusion of Hank’s imagination. Regardless, Hank and Manny settle into life in the woods with Hank confessing his insecurities and working through them. This leads to a series of set pieces and conversations between Hank and Manny that are surprisingly substantive and very funny. There is a lot going on overtly and underneath the action. Swiss Army Man is a strange portrait of someone working through his social anxieties. That makes the farting and vomiting of Swiss Army Man more than just gratuitous laughs. The filmmakers recognize that dishonesty is inherent to social interactions; we withhold aspects of ourselves from each other out of a sense of politeness, most obviously our bodily functions. Total openness and honesty would make us unsociable. This movie is at some level about one man’s attempt to be honest with himself and to reconcile with the uncontrollable and revolting aspects of the body. But the film is also about the craving for meaningful interactions with other people in a way that will lead to sustainable relationships. That gives Swiss Army Man an unexpected and affecting quality that makes it much more than it initially appears to be.

What Doesn’t: Swiss Army Man is such a strange and unusual film that it is inherently going to appeal to a niche audience. The combination of toilet humor and thoughtfulness may work against it. The film may be too crass for an audience that would otherwise watch Life of Pi but it may be more thoughtful than the scatological audience will take interest in. The weirdness of Swiss Army Man is what distinguishes this film and makes it special but it also inherently limits the film’s appeal or at least requires viewers to discard their preconceived notions of what a proper motion picture ought to include. The narrative structure of Swiss Army Man is flimsy. That befits the nature of the story. There is an overall narrative shape to it but the premise requires the picture to be loosely plotted and there are some choices in the ending that tend toward sentimentality and don’t entirely make sense.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, deleted scenes, interviews.

Bottom Line: Swiss Army Man is a strange movie. For that matter, it is unlike virtually any motion picture you’re likely to see. But among its scatological humor and bizarre set pieces there is something recognizably human that makes this more than a one-joke picture.

Episode: #629 (January 8, 2017)