Film Review: Swiss Army Man

Despite all its profound ambitions, this tasteless and painfully male-centric comedy insists cyber-stalking is romantic and farts are magical.
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One man’s farting corpse is another man’s jet ski to salvation in the juvenile Swiss Army Man. Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as “The Daniels”), the duo’s big-screen debut is disguised as a profound and whimsical parable on humanity’s (more accurately, men’s) deep secrets, impulses and insecurities. But recalibrate your senses and refocus your internal bullshit detector just a touch and feel free to laugh away at the sight of an emperor with no clothes on. Despite its ambitions to reveal something thoughtful inside a magical tale of male bonding, Swiss Army Man is unfortunately just a shallow bromance that dares to demand our affection for an infantile male figure with troublesome tendencies like cyber-stalking.

The film opens amid vast waters, as we zero in on objects made of empty water bottles and food containers, floating near a deserted island. We then approach inland and watch Hank (Paul Dano), the undoubted owner of the previously seen trash, as he tries to hang himself and end his lonesome misery. Thankfully, he spots a body—Manny (Daniel Radcliffe)—washed ashore just in time and puts his plans on hold for the potential and very welcome company of another living human. It doesn’t take Hank long to discover that Manny is a corpse with supernatural powers. And unlike Harry Potter, Manny doesn’t seem to need a wand to channel his capabilities towards a greater good. His flatulence powers Hank’s escape (I wasn’t lying when I hinted earlier that his farting corpse will eventually serve as a jet ski) and his frequent erections show Hank the way towards the beautiful, dreamy Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose picture decorates the home-screen of his slowly dying cellphone with an inexplicably long battery life.

Once the friendly corpse Manny starts talking out of nowhere, we get to discover his other handy resources, such as his ability to vomit drinkable water and shave Hank’s beard off with his teeth. (I really wish I was joking here, but it really is this disgusting.) As the two continue talking and bonding, Hank teaches Manny—who is like a blank canvas regarding all-things human—about life, melancholic memories inherited from childhood, and complex feelings (some involving sex) adults acquire as they grow up and mature. Except in Hank’s case, “maturity” doesn’t seem to have taken hold of his mind quite yet. We don’t exactly find out why he was stranded on a deserted island—we only know he “escaped” of his own will—but his suffering from deep melancholy (or even a mild form of mental illness) becomes evident with each heart-to-heart he has with Manny.

Mercifully, Swiss Army Man isn’t entirely unwatchable, thanks to its overarching fairytale-like touch with dark twists and turns. At times—especially during one notable montage when Hank elaborately demonstrates the sensation of watching the world go by from inside a bus—its eccentricity is even bearable. The film’s creative visuals that intersect the styles of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry grab you momentarily, while its cheery editing (by Matthew Hannam) manages to inspire a brief sense of awe. Sadly, none of it adds up to an honest film that deals with universal human issues in a fresh way, and the story succumbs to an entitled male’s troubles in due course. And even more disconcertingly, Swiss Army Man shamelessly asks for your pity and compassion for Hank’s creepy obsession with Sarah (whom he doesn’t even know, you see) and insists on positioning his hair-rising fixation as harmless and dreamy.

Throughout Swiss Army Man, one can almost picture the writers making a checklist of commonplace childhood memories (which, according to the bread crumbs in the film, include Jurassic Park, cheese puffs and a stash of porn magazines) and retrofitting them into the lives and deaths of their otherworldly characters to stir up something in the hearts of the audience. But no amount of posing can make this film seem more philosophical than its face value, which is every bit as gross as it sounds. In the end, Hank and Manny are just a pair of man-boys who adore their farts and believe in the magic of their erections.

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