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Friday, July 1, 2016

Review: SWISS ARMY MAN is a breezy, flatulent adventure

When I walked out of Swiss Army Man, I had its various pieces of music stuck in my head and I simply couldn't get it out.

While I was watching it, I was amazed to be watching a movie that both began and ended on a fart joke (and has them peppered throughout).

This is the strange experience that is Swiss Army Man, a film that is both audacious and joyous, while also worming its way in my head as one of the more visually inventive films I've seen.

The debut feature from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert settles in on Hank (Paul Dano), a man deserted on a particularly lonely looking island and on the verge of starvation, opts to end his life - humming a tune taught to him by his mother. His fortunes begin to shift as just before the act can commence, he sees a body wash ashore (Daniel Radcliffe). Much to Hank's chagrin, the body is long-deceased by unknown means, but to his benefit is quite flatulent. Utilizing the gas that is escaping from his rear, Hank rides the corpse until they reach the mainland. The better part of the film's running time deals with Hank and Manny's (as the corpse will come to be known, and yes he does talk, or at least Hank imagines he does) travails through the wilderness, the life lessons they impart on one another, and the creative ways that Manny's body is used to their advantage.

You can sense that Kwan and Scheinert want to impart some moving lesson about making the most of life and living in a way that doesn't let fear and insecurities overwhelm you. It's a pretty basic moral, and the point is made as they see fit, but it's probably the most plodding part of the film. Really, what this movie boils down to in its bluntest terms is that Hank is afraid to fart in public, and by the film's end he's able to squeak one out in front of people. It's a microcosm of his greater issue as stated above, but Swiss Army Man never really gets deeper than that. Hank tries to teach Manny about life, and Manny ends up teaching him, blah blah blah.

Instead, where Swiss Army Man works best is in its forward momentum. Whenever its two protagonists continue to move and find another fascinating usage of Manny's various body parts (to chop wood, to start fires, to fire off grappling hooks, even to dispense water) the movie begins to shine with Dano and Radcliffe both giving joyous performances that bounce off each other in suitable ways. In truth, I'm not sure Radcliffe has ever been this good, and while that's pretty faint praise, he's doing very strong and subtle work here. I came away impressed and almost equally so with Dano, whose tics typically repel me, but are well suited to Hank's mannerisms here.

It's only when the events slow down for discussion that the mind begins to wander, and generally not about questions that the filmmakers intended for their audience to focus on. But it's never too long a gap before the road trip begins anew, and their visual gifts come back around. I was particularly impressed with a recreation of sitting on a bus that Hank assists Manny with. Kwan and Scheinert are ably assisted by Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, who provide one of those most infectious scores I've had the good fortune to absorb. There's an energy there that aids the film's quirky punch, and allows you move past even the dullest short reprieve. It also has the greatest Jurassic Park callback in recent memory.

Swiss Army Man is the definition of "not for everybody", but if you're willing to just let it go and have a good time (and not expect a film laden with deep meaning or symbolism), you'll come away from the experience in good spirits. Hey, maybe I learned something from this movie after all!

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