Daniel Radcliffe is a dead body that gives life in the infinitely strange and terminally unsatisfying “Swiss Army Man.” The feature directorial debut from inventive and successful music video directors the Daniels (real names: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) teams Radcliffe with Paul Dano. It edges into the non-sequitur weirdness of Quentin Dupieux (“Rubber,” “Wrong“) and the fantastical romantic yearning of Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind“) but doesn’t persuasively mint a uniquely “Daniels” brand of oddity.
“Swiss Army Man” is a big swing — there’s no denying the risk in putting two well-known actors in a film where one plays a barely-mobile corpse — but also a big whiff that rarely connects its characters and situations to humor or empathy.
Dano plays Hank, a 20-something guy stranded on a desert island. He’s saved from a lonely, ignominious death when given the opportunity to ride into the sea on Daniel Radcliffe’s dead body, which is propelled by an industrial-quality jet of farts.
There are a lot of farts in this movie.
Farts that sound signals of lifelessness and signals of confidence, and which, as mentioned, can be propulsive like the water stream from one of those pressurized toy pool rockets. There’s a life-sustaining vomit stream of water, and a brief appearance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the woman who captivates Dano’s Hank, and Radcliffe’s clothed but insistently protuberant boner, which waves about like the chestbuster from “Alien.”
None of those things are a problem. The problem is that you’ll likely remember the farts and the boner more than anything else. In fairness, the boner does act like a divining rod.
After Hank is saved by the floating flatulence of Radcliffe’s corpse, the two form a co-dependent friendship. Radcliffe’s character, Manny, begins to speak, but appears to know nothing of the real world. At that point Hank explains things like love, and bus rides, and masturbation to his dead-ish friend.
“Swiss Army Man” has begun to deflate long before that, however, due to a prolific series of tonal miscalculations that render jokes inert and flirts with farce without committing to that tone, or any other. The film isn’t weird for weird’s sake — there is a perceptible idea at play, but one that is always out of reach. The concoction never gels, and too often feels like one very long, rambling comedy sketch.
See, Hank can’t relate to anyone. Dismally unable to talk to women, he’s lost in his own world, functionally trapped on the tiny island of his own meagre personality. Is his corpse friend Manny imaginary or a mental projection, some strange way of facing his own fears and inadequacies?
The truth of Manny’s existence doesn’t really matter, but most of his conversations with Hank are pitched like juvenile philosophy. Eventually, each character speaks the film’s themes aloud, just in case anyone might have been distracted by the farts. The extreme eccentricities ultimately articulate no more than the fantasies of a lonely guy who can’t get laid.
Not that there’s anything inherently pathetic in being lonely. We’re all lonely, probably more often than we’d like to admit. But we don’t surreptitiously take photos of pretty women on the bus. We don’t wistfully note that “before the internet, every girl was a lot more special,” as Hank does. We don’t have to invent a friendly corpse to tell us we’re lame — any living person could do that.
“Swiss Army Man” boasts impressively committed performances from both Radcliffe and Dano. Radcliffe, in particular, breaks away from his well-known mannered patter to rise to the demands of playing a character who is often a lifeless rag doll. Winstead’s appearance — warm, reasonable, strong — has the effect of a grounding force that says, “yeah, we know our hero is a serious creep,” but “Swiss Army Man” is far too gone by the point she appears as more than a lock screen photo on Hank’s phone.
In a film landscape that often seems dominated by marketing and corporate interests, a big splash of utter weirdness is bracingly refreshing. This particular weirdness tumbles into juvenile relationship riffs and goofy setpieces, leaving any real grasp of ideas out of reach, as if it is jetting away on a fart-driven corpse. [C-]