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Swiss Army Man

Paul Dano rides Daniel Radcliffe to freedom in this surreal comedy

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Swiss Army Man hits theaters with quite an advance buzz. Vanity Fair said it could be the strangest movie in the history of the Sundance Film Festival. I can't say if that's the case or not, but it's certainly in the running.

The film was written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan, collectively known as Daniels. The duo of Daniels created the video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon's megahit "Turn Down for What," which is one of the most demented dance videos since Spike Jonze sent Christopher Walken flying through the air for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice." But if that's not enough Daniels for you, the film stars another one. Yes, that's Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, as Manny, the titular corpse whose advancing state of decomposition imbues him with strange powers.

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The most senior member of the creative team not named Daniel, Paul Dano, is the other half of this epic two-hander. He stars as Hank, an everyman stranded on an unnamed Pacific island. The opening images of various bits of trash Hank has sent floating into the sea with messages like "HELP ME" lead straight into a shot of the castaway fitting his neck into a makeshift noose. It's a brilliant little bit of visual storytelling that condenses a whole story of hope and desperation into a few seconds. Just as Hank is about to step off into oblivion, he sees Manny wash up on the shore. Thinking his rescue is at hand, Hank narrowly avoids strangling himself, only to find that his would-be savior is not only dead, but also posthumously flatulent. But Hank quickly discovers that Manny is so supernaturally flatulent that he is able to propel himself through the water, and thus does the guy who played Brian Wilson ride the corpse of the guy who played Harry Potter like a fart-powered jet ski to freedom.

Daniel Radcliff (left) and Paul Dano in a film about farts and friendship
  • Daniel Radcliff (left) and Paul Dano in a film about farts and friendship

Or so he thinks. Just getting to the mainland doesn't solve Hank's castaway problem. Now he's lost in the coastal rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, with nothing but a stiff for company. But Manny turns out to be a most versatile corpse, and when Hank the castaway starts talking to him out of desperation for human companionship, Manny eventually starts responding. Having hit the functional edge of their concept, Daniels turn Swiss Army Man into a kind of Man From Mars story. Manny has no memory of his life, but he has a lot of questions, which forces Hank to try to explain concepts like love and home and bus fare. Thus, the suicidal castaway and the flatulent dead guy regain the will to live together, and along the way figure out a kind of philosophy.

Hank's arc is something akin to Tom Hanks' travel from despair to joie de vivre in the 1990 cult classic Joe Versus the Volcano, and Hank's habit of creating little worlds out of trash is very Michel Gondry. Swiss Army Man is a worthy successor to the great works of 21st-century surrealist quirk like Being John Malkovich. What at first seems like a premise that's just strange for the sake of being strange opens up into a wider exploration of what it means to be alive, punctuated with fart jokes. Swiss Army Man is not quite an allegory, but it's at least a rich, thoughtful film that shows what comedy can be capable of.


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