The most interesting thing about Swiss Army Man is how quick it is to discard the goofiness of its central premise to explore something far closer to emotionally ripe drama than lowbrow comedy. Ever since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, the directorial debut of The Daniels’ has been dubbed the “farting boner corpse” movie, due to Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as a flatulent, consistently erect and somehow sentient corpse named Manny.
After being introduced ridden like a jet ski across the Pacific, his farts speeding Hank (Paul Dano) across the ocean, the movie maintains a keen absurdism without ever settling to crack jokes solely about the dumbest topics imaginable. On paper, this character introduction suggests the following movie will resemble the bastard love child of Weekend at Bernie’s and long forgotten 2002 British kids comedy Thunderpants; a film about a child with powerful farts that holds the bizarre distinction of being Paul Giamatti’s favourite film he ever starred in. Although all the lowbrow humour is played far funnier than in any number of mainstream comedies, it is still a directorial slight of hand that hides the unexpectedly poignant (and universally relatable) movie that follows straight after.
Stranded on a island in the pacific and about to kill himself, Hank (Paul Dano) witnesses a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the shore. The body appears to be dead, yet can be used as a human swiss army knife- with powerful farts that can propel Hank across the ocean and an erect penis that can act as a compass, guiding Hank back to land. As the body gains sentience, Hank discovers it has no memory of his life or of human existence, so teaches this corpse everything it needs to know about life – seemingly hundreds of miles from the real world.
The Daniels’ seem to be taking their visual cues in equal parts from director Michel Gondry and The Mighty Boosh. The jungle civilisation Hank builds to teach Manny about life feels like it owes a debt to the weird coconut world created in the Boosh episode “The Nightmare of Milky Joe”. Even the soundtrack is somewhat Boosh or Flight of the Conchords inspired; the two central characters can start humming, breaking the fourth wall by having these chants grow into lushly orchestrated choral flights of fancy. As the film progresses, these chants echo everything from the Jurassic Park theme to a mumbled description of everything that is happening on screen at a certain moment.
Yet the weirdness is limited only to the stylisation, or if you take the narrative solely at surface level. The masterstroke of the Daniels’ directorial debut is that you very quickly forget that Manny is a sentient corpse. The movie eventually portrays him as an emotionally stunted man child, but with more room for growth. The end result manages to be significantly more moving than most comedy movies, despite a central premise that is inherently more infantile.
Conversations about typical comic topics, from masturbation to human sexuality, quickly become theses on existentialism that resist simple punchlines with an effervescent glee. In many ways, the film goes further than most male sex comedies by adding an entirely unexpected, non judgemental, homoeroticism that introduces itself in an unexpected manner. As the film progresses, it finds a human tragedy inside its ridiculous premise that is so unexpected (and so keenly felt), it would be a spoiler to describe the direction the narrative takes. All I will say is that the last line uttered in the film is “what the fuck?” – a line which is perfectly fitting.
Swiss Army Man deals with the crippling loneliness of modern life, the existential fears of perpetually single people and, most importantly, the practicalities of using a corpse as a human torch. It balances the emotional with the bizarre – and in spite of the disparate thematic elements, manages to equally perfect both the lowbrow and highbrow elements into one odd, arresting whole. As far as directorial debuts go, there are few this delightfully strange, that take the highest, most ridiculous concept imaginable and bring it back down to earth kicking and screaming. I cannot wait to see what strange work The Daniels’ manage to craft next.
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