The Drive-In Theater: Swiss Army Man

Will Schube takes a look at the latest A24 release, Swiss Army Man.
By    July 11, 2016

swiss army man

Will Schube makes fart noises with his mouth. 

How far can a fart joke take you? How about erectile giggles? If you’re ask directing duo The Daniels, the answer is: pretty damn far. Their debut feature, Swiss Army Man—starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe—is littered with gags for cheap laughs. The first twenty minutes are absurdly gassy, and Radcliffe’s discovery of what, exactly, an erection is and how it comes about, finds serious legs during the film’s middle third. But scattered amongst these begs for laughs is an actually wonderful film; a story that touches on creativity, life + death, and the function of cinema itself. It’s the rare movie able to be reflexive without seeming so. It also spends too much time masquerading as quirky while being nothing more than silly. It’s a messy movie, but its ambitions are high and its scope isn’t limited to the bounds of a film camera.

The film begins on a deserted island with Paul Dano pushed to suicidal desperation. He’s about to hang himself when Manny (Radcliffe) washes ashore. He’s dead and very gassy. Dano continues to prepare his noose and Radcliffe keeps farting. It’s funny. Farts are hysterical, I’ll be the first to admit it. But they keep coming and coming. When Manny isn’t farting his weirdly mechanical penis is growing erect. As my mother would say, it’s neither cute nor funny. Radcliffe’s physical comedy outside of fart noises is really impressive and truly hysterical. It’s more than enough to rely on.

You know you’ve made a good film when its biggest problem revolves around an over-extended gaseous noise. The directors even use our fear of farts to tap into a metaphor about our inability to release our true selves to the world. The toots can be really endearing. Until they’re not.

Dano’s character, Hank, is your average world-weary young adult—afraid of anything because he’s spurned by everything. Manny is, in a sense, a reflection of Hank, and their relationship plays out as a silly, wonderful discovery of place—a world they’re creating throughout the film’s hour forty duration. Part of the film’s charm has to be credited to directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known in the music video world as The Daniels), who put full faith in the believability—or, more accurately, that their audience won’t care about believability if it’s instead supplanted by a feeling of exhilaration and enchanted charm—of their plot. Manny, recently deceased and even more recently resurrected thanks to Hank’s faith, has the education of a small child and it’s Hank’s job to teach him. Most of the film’s humor derives from this relationship.

The Jurassic Park theme song makes an appearance in the form of acapella performance (it’s Manny’s first time hearing or remembering the iconic title track), and you’ve got to be a heartless square to watch Manny and Hank scamper about singing that classic hook and not crack a smile. In addition to this lovely performance, the film’s soundtrack is uplifting without involving folksy boy/girl choruses, handclaps, and tribal drums; truly a feat.

But every time the film and its creators are seemingly fully invested in the script’s emotional vulnerability—the wild special effects (effects that are truly special because they’re seemingly done physically—the way they constructed Manny is truly fascinating), the wilder montages, the wildest plot unfoldings—Manny farts or gets hard. The film’s one true flaw is that it doesn’t have enough faith in its ability to affect emotional resonance—a cruel irony when so much of Hank’s faith lies in the little cinematic subtleties that keep him and Manny pushing forward.

swiss army

And it’s this slight flaw that makes Swiss Army Man so frustrating. It’s a phenomenally assured debut by two immensely talented filmmakers. It opens an avenue for non-traditional storytelling—an avenue of filmmaking sorely needed in 2016.

Yet The Daniels are never fully able to embrace the raw power of their own story. Hank and Manny are too well crafted to constantly be tethered down by dick jokes and fart noises. It goes on too long, yet the film is still awe-inducing. It’s truly original and incredibly engaging. It’s just hard to focus on the film’s powerful themes—the fun of working with someone, the constantly lingering fear of death, our inability to say or do what we mean—when the world is drowning in fart noises. Maybe I’m being prudish or stupid because I’m unwilling to embrace an onslaught of farts and half-chubs. The Daniels’ made an excellent movie. It just doesn’t smell very good. 

Rating: See this movie but be prepared to go from loving it to hating it in five minute increments for the film’s duration.

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