Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
It’s a recurring truism of life that, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The cheque isn’t in the mail. You probably weren’t chosen out of hundreds of thousands of entrants to win the Reader’s Digest sweepstake. The article you’re about to click on realistically isn’t about to blow your mind.
But we do like to believe that things will one day be as good as they sound. This applies often to movies with either ridiculous titles, outlandish high concepts or a combination of the two. Troma knew this, and with movies like Surf Nazis Must Die or Chopper Chicks In Zombietown, managed to perpetuate their range of total garbage thanks largely to the curiosity factor of what they were selling. It sounds like so much fun! We all love being able to brag about a crazy movie we’ve seen. Something especially outlandish. But virtually every single time these movies fail – considerably – to live up to this promise of wacky, hidden gold dust.
Now here’s Swiss Army Man, a film which has been whispered about for months. “Did you know there’s a film coming out where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse on a desert island?” This is that film. It also stars Paul Dano as a living person named Hank, stranded on said island and about to off himself when he spies Radcliffe’s inert body. On investigating, Hank discovers that the corpse is farting a lot. Soon he is being propelled across the ocean on a human jet ski, Radcliffe’s exposed bottom bubbling away. So begins an absurd buddy movie that is unlike any other movie, but not as much as you might think.
Comedian Stewart Lee has a bit he does about how there’s nothing funnier than shit-smelling gas coming out of an arse. And yeah, most of us, no matter how smart we think we are, will laugh at a fart gag. But just as Hank talks to his new friend – Manny – about the law of diminishing returns, so Swiss Army Man quickly succumbs to the same fate. Radcliffe’s farting corpse isn’t that funny to begin with, but it’s a joke that the film hammers home again and again, and it’s one that sadly fails to loop back around to funny again.
Once you get past that, the rest of the film relies on the most puerile spectrum of humour it can similarly come up with. Hank and Manny converse (Manny talks, y’see, just like he emits water like a pump and gets yoyoing boners), but they mainly talk about masturbation or what boobs are. There’s a one-track-mind to Swiss Army Man that channels schoolyard sensibilities, almost to a fault. You’re left wondering when it’s going to grow up. Pretty quickly, this film – directed by two men called Daniel who refer to themselves collectively as Daniels (ugh) – seems like little more than the hipster alternative to a Farrelly Brothers movie, or shit like Tusk; an idea born in a bong that has gotten rapidly, considerably out of hand.
Clearly Hank is delusional; Manny isn’t doing anything, so the two characters are really one. This is therefore, in effect, a 95 minute movie of a man talking to himself. It’s rather damning of Hank’s character that he elects to spend his time in a feedback loop of immaturity, but this is the man that he evidently is. Swiss Army Man is Castaway starring a horny man-child. Sporadically this is fun, and you can tell Radcliffe and Dano are having a hoot playing it. Sometimes the enjoyment going on in front of the camera transmits itself through the screen and is infectious. But just as often the film’s cloying tendencies (scored almost entirely by humming?) prove a barrier and you’re instead inclined to imagine the Danielses smugly patting each other on the back for how wacky they are. And how lucky. Someone put their millions into this.
Probably I’m taking this all far too seriously. I should just laugh it up. I should celebrate that the character(s) in this film spend their time humming the Jurassic Park theme tune – I do that! And I should be telling you that, regardless of how the humour lands, these Daniels people know how to make a film. Swiss Army Man is slick, well-made, pretty to look at, even.
But it also feels like the emperor’s new clothes. Just because this schtick is well-made doesn’t stop it being nothing more than schtick. It’s a gimmick stretched-out and ultimately kinda tiresome because of it. And that’s a shame. Because one senses that Swiss Army Man isn’t far off being a genuinely brilliant, wise and even thoughtful creation. It has the potential at every turn to evolve beyond jokes about standing in poop. But it never takes the initiative to do so. In the end this is a film about… well… nothing, most fun when it’s skipping through ideas quickly in montage form. Tellingly, these represent the sections in which we don’t have to hear Hank and Manny talking so much crap.
Watch out for minor peripheral appearances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Upstream Color director Shane Carruth, though.