July 15 2016 07:17 AM

“Swiss Army Man” is a bizarre and earnest paean to life

FRIDAY, July 15 — Unquestionably an exercise in sheer ludicrousness, “Swiss Army Man” is nevertheless one of the most shamelessly earnest films I’ve yet seen this year. At times, it feels like the film is trying to confound, seeing how much weirdness you can take before you walk out — almost daring you to do so. And yet, it wants to inspire, and its spirit is far too generous to give in to such a reductive reading.

Hank (Paul Dano) is a young man in despair, stranded on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. His suicide attempt interrupted when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Discovering that the dead body’s flatulence can propel both of them through the water, Hank rides the corpse across the ocean to land. There he discovers that the corpse can talk, is named Manny, and has special powers and quirks such as dispensing fresh water from his mouth, shooting objects like bullets from his orifices and sporting an erection that points them home. What follows as they make their way through the wilderness is an oddly touching story of two young men bonding over their shared oddness and social outsider status. Hank helps Manny discover, or remember, what it is to be alive — or is it the other way around?

Writer/directors Daniel Schienert and Daniel Kwan (“Daniels,” as they’re credited in all the promotional material) have made a movie about themselves, since the film is a kind of simulation of the joy of finding a kindred spirit. It makes for an endearing and personal kind of buddy comedy, like “Weekend at Bernie’s” made by guys who stay up every night watching Adult Swim. This is their first feature, and “Daniels” show a competent grasp of cinematic craft. Their use of sound is impressive. The amount of different variations of fart noises is staggering and amusing. The film is solidly edited from moment to moment, shot to shot. Music is their real achievement, however. An elegiac score by Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell is key to the film’s style and worldview. Dano and Radcliffe often sing or hum the score themselves diegetically, as if the music erupts from within them. It tunes us in to the characters and seems to illustrate the directors’ view that immense beauty and powerful emotions lie within everyone, just waiting to burst forth through the direct power of song. Often film scores tell the audience how it should feel rather than how the characters are feeling. This is a clever use of an often misunderstood cinematic device that gets us to identify with the pair, particularly Hank.

“Daniels” also get stellar performances from their two leads. Dano solidifies his reputation as one of America’s finest young actors, with a wounded and soulful performance that, while not among his best, shows how reliable a character actor he is. Radcliffe, meanwhile, has the unenviable/enviable role of making a dead guy come to life. It’s a difficult feat, but when it’s pulled off, as it is here, it lets you steal just about every scene you’re in, and Radcliffe certainly does without ever feeling showy. It can’t be easy capturing Manny’s wide-eyed naiveté without being able to emote much, but Radcliffe’s successful performance should help this very talented actor to get out from under the shadow of a certain boy wizard he played once and for all.

“Daniels” show promising, albeit unrefined, skill as directors, but they struggle as writers. As mentioned above, the movie is well edited on a micro level, but on a macro scale, it could use some tightening up. I sense this is more of a script problem, since the film feels long in the tooth and has a few too many sequences of staggeringly slow pacing. I wonder how much more enjoyable it might have been with ten or fifteen minutes trimmed from its already brief 95 minutes. It feels like this whole film was a fun idea for a Vimeo or YouTube short that the two decided to stretch into a feature. That has nothing to do with the film’s grotesque oddness, which wins you over after a while. (Or, at least, you get used to it.) It’s just that the film feels undercooked and doesn’t have the narrative or cinematic thrust to totally justify its length

Despite this, it’s a refreshing film. Its tenor — its default mode of expression — is one of pure joy and humanistic wonder. It runs into some problems when you consider what this film might accidentally (or worse, intentionally) be endorsing, but it ultimately makes some thought-provoking points about human connection and the repressive shackles of social customs and “decency.” This message is dulled slightly by its overly earnest and twee nature, but not enough to negate its virtues.

I’m excited for “Daniels” and look forward to their future projects. With some practice and a refinement of their exciting and fresh sensibilities, they could become filmmakers worthy of interest. At worst, they’ll become fun cult directors.

Grade: B

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