Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Swiss Army Man

(Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, 2016)

Alone and stranded on an island somewhere in the Pacific, Hank (Paul Dano) has lost all hope and is about to kill himself when a body washes up on the shore in SWISS ARMY MAN. The corpse is especially flatulent and thus can serve as a makeshift jet ski for Hank to ride back to the continent. The journey is just partially complete, though. Hank still has to make his way through California’s coastal wilderness to civilization, assuming he can muster the will to press on. Lucky for him, the dead body he totes with him functions as a multi-tool and, when Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) starts to talk, a companion.

Manny hasn’t retained any knowledge, so he relies on Hank for an education about the world. Manny also has no frame of reference for social cues, so he encourages Hank to stop bottling up the feelings and embarrassing bodily expulsions. Hank talks about his own past as though he left behind a life filled with loneliness and heartbreak. Based on flashbacks and the picture on his smart phone’s lock screen, a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) plays a major factor in his sadness and his desire to go home. Manny mistakes the phone for his, and when he sees her photo and is told about love, he believes that it is his purpose to return to her.

With its decidedly quaint style and sensitive protagonist, SWISS ARMY MAN risks twee overload, but the offbeat humor and the actors help to keep the affectations from making the film into something overly precious. The scatological jokes keep Hank’s painful sincerity in check, as does Manny’s innocent bluntness. Writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert empathize with Hank and want the character to be more at ease with his weirdness, but to their credit, they don’t treat the odd aspects of him as being immune from distancing others. SWISS ARMY MAN accepts Hank for who he is and wants him to do the same, with the understanding others won’t always validate his unusual qualities. He’s special in his own way, but he can’t expect everyone to like it.

Dano does fine work in showing Hank’s vulnerability, particularly with how he lets down his guard with Manny. Belief is suspended in this absurd scenario because Dano opens up so tenderly to this talking corpse and becomes reliant on Manny as if he’s an imaginary friend who has taken physical form. In explaining to Manny how feelings and relationships work, Hank is better able to comprehend how he has failed at dealing with these things. Dano’s performance is touching when, through Manny, he can reflect how he observes and wants to be seen. Radcliffe’s acting as Manny produces a glorious mix of physical comedy and deadpan line delivery. The pure, matter-of-fact way he asks awkward questions and offers uncomfortable suggestions softens the crudity and makes such things all the funnier. Radcliffe comports himself like a ventriloquist’s dummy, which also heightens the comedy in his reactions and statements.

Although SWISS ARMY MAN is undeniably strange, it isn’t perhaps as original as it might sound from the description. Kwan and Scheinert are working in a similar domain as Michel Gondry, who, like them, also transitioned from music videos to feature films. Like Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP, Kwan and Scheinert use unconventional means, not to mention all the handcrafted items, to look at self-doubt and romantic frustration. Even if SWISS ARMY MAN doesn’t blaze a new trail, the filmmakers have succeeded at making something distinct, funny, and curiously affecting.

Grade: B

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