The Films of 2016: Swiss Army Man

As far as dick-and-fart-joke movies go, you’re unlikely to find another one this year that’s as funny—or as surprisingly heartfelt—as Swiss Army Man, directed by Daniel Schienerts and Daniel Kwan (known collectively as “The Daniels”), in which Paul Dano plays Hank, a suicidal castaway who finds a new best friend in a reanimated corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe).  The film was a succès de scandale at Sundance earlier this year, where it was met with walkouts but went on to win the festival’s Best Director prize.  It now promises to become the cult hit of the summer. 

Tonally, the film strikes a precarious balance between irony and earnestness.  As they make their way home through the woods, Manny’s pliable, flatulent body lending itself to all manner of unexpected uses (hence the film’s title), the two men wax philosophical about everything from masturbation and feces to love and the meaning of life.  His memory having been wiped clean by his brush with death, Manny is a rag-doll tabula rasa who regards everything around him with an innocent wonder, even as one eyelid remains stuck in a perpetual droop.  He functions as Hank’s child, confidante, and man Friday, with the two occasionally role-playing romantic scenarios in which Hank gives Manny lessons in the art of wooing women.  Their armchair philosophizing is inextricable from the film’s scatological gags: by the time Hank warns Manny that he won’t be able to fart whenever he wants anymore after they return to civilization, and Manny, baffled, posits that a world in which one isn’t able to fart freely may not be worth living in, it’s become clear that the film’s toilet humor is being used in the service of (though never subordinated to) ideas cribbed from Rousseau and Freud.  As in the plays of Samuel Beckett, whose Vladimir and Estragon could be distant relations of Hank and Manny, the profundity of Swiss Army Man is inextricable from the nastiness of the world in which it takes place—a nastiness that Beckett and the Daniels also agree is hilariously, absurdly funny.

Swiss Army Man is not quite so clever, or so profound, as it thinks it is (it’s certainly no Waiting for Godot).  But it is likely to be one of the funnier films of this year.  When Manny, propelled by his own flatulence, carries Hank across the ocean on his back like a dolphin, it’s sublimely bizarre.  And Dano and Radcliffe, whose faces are never less than straight even at the most ridiculous of moments, prove themselves to be actors of tireless commitment in addition to being talented comedians.  Dano succeeded in establishing himself as a risk-taker long ago, but for Radcliffe, who has only just begun to dip his toe in the world that lies beyond Hogwarts Academy, Swiss Army Man marks an exciting and irreverent move.  After this film you’ll never think of him the same way again.        

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