James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
This week’s column is about “Swiss Army Man,” which opens theatrically on Friday.
James: So this is “a farting corpse bromance.”
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Semaj: Don’t spoil it.
James: OK, it’s “an endearing dark comedy about loneliness and the human need to connect to another.”
Semaj: It kind of reminds me of “Child of God,” that movie you adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s third novel about a necrophiliac.
James: “Child of God” is a little darker than this movie.
Semaj: Yeah, but only because the character in “Child of God” sleeps with his corpses and then starts to murder more people to have more companions.
James: That character, Lester Ballard, was loosely based on the real murderer, Ed Gein, notorious bone and skin collector and exhumer of bodies. He made lampshades out of skin, and bedposts out of skulls.
Semaj: Ed Gein also inspired Robert Bloch’s “Psycho” (the human taxidermy, Norman dressing up like his dead mother) and Nicholas Winding Refn’s favorite movie of all time, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
James: Why are you bringing up Nicolas Winding Refen?
Semaj: He’s always talking about “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I think he took his wife to see it on their first date ever.
James: Anyway, “Swiss Army Man” does deal with a corpse like all those films, but it does it in a different way. Somehow it’s not as bleak, and grisly. It’s pretty skillful how they pull it off.
Semaj: “Weekend at Bernie’s” already pulled off a corpse comedy.
James: This isn’t like “Weekend at Bernie’s” either. That’s a straight-up comedy, but like the Two Corey’s classic, “License to Drive,” the comedy comes from the characters trying to disguise the fact that they are carting around a corpse.
Semaj: In “License to Drive,” it’s a drunken Heather Graham.
James: Yeah, but in those movies they have no meaningful interactions with the incapacitated (or dead) characters. The bodies are usually temporarily animated to deliver a moment of comedy.
Semaj: In “Swiss Army Man,” it’s all about the relationship between Paul Dano and the corpse.
James: Exactly. Paul Dano’s character is so lonely that on the brink of suicide he meets the Daniel Radcliff corpse and immediately begins to develop a friendship with him.
Semaj: In a way, it’s as if Paul Dano’s character is animating the corpse with his own thoughts and feelings.
James: Exactly! He provides the corpse with his personality.
Semaj: Sort of like you do with these columns — you animate both sides of a conversation.
James: Yeah, I guess so. Maybe I’m lonely, too.
Semaj: I’m here for you.
James: Thanks, man.
Semaj: So, does that mean that Paul Dano’s character is having a bromance with himself?
James: Sort of, but it’s more complex than that. One of the things that is great about necrophilia stories, despite their disguising reality, is they allow an intense examination of what it means to be intimate with an other. Dano’s character wants what everyone wants: to connect to another, to love and be loved. But he has been damaged by a loveless father, and is so insecure that he is incapable of speaking to the woman he’s attracted to on his bus route.
Semaj: So he isolates himself in the wilderness, and becomes lonelier.
James: He has given up on conventional social interactions, he can’t do it, the world has rejected him. He feels ugly and unlovable.
Semaj: But when he finds the corpse he can infuse it with all his ideas of a perfect mate. He is out in the woods with no one to contradict him, so his imagination can run wild, and he can believe, without any objections from the greater world, that his new corpse friend can talk, and use his farts to propel them over the water like a jet ski, or light fires, or shoot them up into the sky to evade dangerous animals.
James: Exactly. So you think that all that fantastic stuff is in Paul Dano’s imagination?
Semaj: I think so, but it doesn’t really matter after a while because the movie takes us on his ride, we are experiencing everything through his eyes, so whether that stuff really happens or not doesn’t matter as much as having those experiences affect him, and seeing that they are emotionally real for him. Because of that, the audience also feels.
James: That’s one thing the movie does really well: it draws you into his quirky world so you can get on board with what would otherwise, in actuality, be a fucked up situation.
Semaj: I think the farts have a lot to do with making the whole thing more palatable.
James: You’re exactly right. It seems like a silly thing, and amongst people I’ve talked to, the movie is already known as the “farting corpse movie,” but the idea that the corpse’s gas aids Dano’s imagination when animating the corpse is crucial. From the first meeting on, the corpse farts, and it immediately takes the tone of the film out of the macabre and into the more enjoyable realms of a quirky bromance, where two oddball guys can enjoy fart jokes, talk about women, masturbation, and in the end forge an intimate bond.
James: The movie was directed by two guys with the first name Daniel, so they’re credited as “Daniels.”
Semaj: Maybe making the movie was a kind of bromance for them, too.
James: There is nothing more intimate than creating something with someone. That’s why I collaborate with all my friends again and again.
Semaj: Basically the corpse provides Dano with everything he was denied by everyone else in his life.
James: Exactly, just like all bromances do. In “Pineapple Express,” Dale realizes that his weird drug dealer Saul is actually his best friend; in “Superbad,” the boys learn that they love each other more than anyone; “This is the End” is partly an examination of the strain that trauma puts on friendships, and ultimately the triumph of true friendship, even when facing the end of the world.
Semaj: It’s weird that they didn’t let you go to heaven at the end of that film.
James: You’re telling me! I mean WTF? I sacrificed myself for Seth, and I still don’t get to go to heaven?
Semaj: Danny McBride dragged you down to Hell.
James: Well, Hell would be heaven with a friend like Danny, and Heaven would be Hell without Seth.