You may have heard about “Swiss Army Man” as the movie where Paul Dano rides Daniel Radcliffe’s fart-propelled corpse around like a jet-ski. What’s amazing is that this happens in the first five minutes, yet the movie — a surreal, philosophical comedy about what it means to be alive — still has many surprising and delightful things in store.
Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinart (“a film by Daniels,” say the opening credits), this is the story of Hank (Dano), alone on a desert island and ready to give up on life when a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) washes ashore. How Hank came to be on this island, and where it is in relation to the rest of the world, and where the corpse came from, are all examples of practical questions that the Daniels have no interest in answering and which you must disregard if you are to enjoy the film.
Dubbing him Manny, Hank starts talking to the corpse, which revives and talks back. Manny has no memory of his life, or of “life” in general; he’s like an alien creature wholly unfamiliar with Earth culture, requiring Hank to explain it to him — which forces Hank to examine fundamental questions about existence himself. The corpse is multi-functional, not just as a gas-powered watercraft but in a variety of other fanciful ways (including his post-mortem erection acting as a compass), and Hank uses Manny — a regular “multi-purpose tool guy,” he calls him — to make his way back to civilization.
The Daniels’ mixture of highbrow existential questions, lowbrow bodily function humor, and twee indie-comedy tropes (why, yes, there’s a girl back home that Hank is hung up on) is a marvel unto itself, an invigoratingly original concoction that almost could have gotten by on its unorthodoxy alone. That the story is executed with such heart, intelligence, and infectious joy, with three-dimensional performances by Dano and Radcliffe, is a bonus.
Still, as entertaining and inventive as it is, the film never quite coalesces into anything resonant. I was bemused, baffled, intrigued, and surprised … but I didn’t fall in love. I think its overt absurdity keeps it at arm’s length, making it an affable curiosity more than a close friend. Surely it is the best farting-corpse movie of 2016, though.
B+ (1 hr., 37 min.; )