Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Swiss Army Man

If there was any doubt that Daniel Radcliffe could play a character other than Harry Potter, his portrayal of a talking, farting, water-logged corpse whose boner serves as a compass is a surefire way to shed that wizardly image.

Swiss Army Man (2016) has one of those premises that tells you this movie is either going to be very good or very bad. There is no middle ground. The story is so bizarre that only people who truly believed in it would have had the guts to even to attempt it. Those who seek the comfort and assurance of reliable, bland formula would not have dared.

Shipwrecked Hank (Paul Dano) is about to kill himself out of loneliness and despair when he sees a washed-up corpse (Radcliffe) on the beach. Using the corpse's explosive flatulence, Hank manages to reach to another shore, closer to potential rescue. But usefulness of the corpse, whom he dubs Manny, continues. Soon, Manny begins talking, and Hank begins teaching Manny, who has no memories, about what life has to offer, the good and the bad.

Read that summary again. Can you imagine that being the foundation of a "serious" movie? Well, Swiss Army Man is a funny movie, really funny at times. It's crude, in bad taste, awkward, uncomfortable, and kind of gross but elevated to the point of comic surreal. In its own way, it's rather moving.

Manny is almost child-like in his understanding, and Hank has to explain everything to him, including music, the bus, food, love, social norms of farting, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (this is how they discover Manny's erection points the way to where they need to journey), masturbation, etc. Manny also can't move (His head tends to hang lopsided at a sickening angle), so his body goes through a ton of abuse that would have killed him if he weren't already dead.

He also farts. A lot. To the point Hank shoves a cork up his ass, but not before he made use of this talent. The sight of Hank riding Manny's body over the water like a jet ski or through the air like a rocket is outrageous to the point of glorious. Manny also serves as a freshwater spigot when Hank is thirsty, and Hank discovers he can put objects in Manny's mouth and hit him in the stomach to create a human pistol. The montage of the two slaughtering a host of wildlife using this method is a highlight.

But the movie is not a silly romp. Dano and Radcliffe play their roles completely straight-faced and sincerely, and there is genuine pathos to their relationship. The filmmakers have taken lowbrow subject matter - farting, gross out, necrophilia - and churned it into something with a higher meaning and emotional resonance. It's almost a coming of age story, figuring out your place in the world, and the connections we foster to escape the pain of loneliness.

The ending, where the pair return to civilization, stumbles a bit. It's not bad, and what's revealed fits; it just feels too long and too slow, as if the movie doesn't want to end and is stalling. That said, I can't think of another movie in which the timing of a fart played so critical a role to the climax. The premise might put you off, but if you can stomach it, you're in for a treat.

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