At 26, Daniel Radcliffe has fans to last him a lifetime, but now is the time to recognize him as one of the great actors working today. Chosen from droves of adorable English schoolchildren, Radcliffe was plucked from obscurity to play “The Boy Who Lives” in a fleet of “Harry Potter” blockbusters. Shouldering the weight of global fame and intense fandom, he made the treacherous crossing from child star to respected thespian by challenging himself with naked and vulnerable Broadway turn in “Equus,” a dark comedy TV series “The Young Doctor’s Notebook,” and the role of a young Allen Ginsburg in the biopic “Kill Your Darlings.” In comedies “Trainwreck” and “Victor Frankenstein” as well as the horrific “The Woman in Black” and “Horns,” we’ve witnessed Radcliffe’s emergence as a dynamic and daring young actor who is bankable if not a guaranteed marquee draw.
With his latest, “Swiss Army Man,” the English performer has delivered the portrayal that should be his Oscar entree. Note, I said should. As a gleefully puerile bromance, “Swiss Army Man” has no shot of catching the snooty Academy’s attention. The film’s Sundance reputation as the “farting corpse comedy” closed that door, locked it, and then chucked the key deep into Oscar’s notorious genre blind spot.
And yet Radcliffe’s performance is exactly the sort the Academy claims to revere. Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (A.K.A. the Daniels of “Turn Down For What” fame), “Swiss Army Man” follows the burgeoning friendship of Hank (Paul Dano), a lonely man lost on a desert island, and Manny (Radcliffe), the corpse that fatefully washes up on shore. At first, this bloated body in a bespoke blue suit seems a false ray of hope. But as raucous farts quake his form, the dead man becomes an unlikely savior whose propulsive gas rockets the pair across the waves to a grand adventure that includes heart-to-heart talks about life, love, sex, and—yes—farting.
Blasting gas, baring his hairy ass, and appearing partially decayed for the film’s entire runtime, Radcliffe rejects his cozy niche as proper British dream-boy. Expelling his ego like so much gnarly methane, the boy who hung in countless girls’ lockers looks believably rank.
Compare his turn as the titular “multi-purpose tool guy” to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-snagging portrayal in survival epic “The Revenant.” Surrendering movie star vanity is a mainstay of Oscar-winning performances, from Leo’s grizzled mien in “The Revenant” and Matthew McConaughey’s emaciated “Dallas Buyers Club” appearance to Nicole Kidman’s meaty prosthetic nose in the “Hours.”
The transformation from red carpet glory to grungy commitment is a predictable and popular award season narrative. Sure, Leo ate raw bison liver for his art, but Radcliffe performs with a prosthetic boner that doubled as a compass! For most of the movie, Radcliffe’s physicality is restricted. Hank stages Manny, sitting him upright, propping his arm in a faux casual pose, or making him dance with a marionette-like rig.
Recalling the Oscar-winning performances of Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything” or Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” Radcliffe must craft a character without the freedom to express with his body. Tools actors typically take for granted—like the flourish of fingers, or the shifting of shoulders—are denied him. But Radcliffe shapes a hero who is dynamic and alive.
As Hank drags Manny back to civilization, the resurrected man goes through an accelerated but well-defined evolution, stumbling from his first words and lullabies, to adolescent queries about masturbation and his changing body, to deeper questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of pain. Radcliffe carves out the journey, making Manny a fully realized person before our eyes. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to see the full arc of a human life captured on camera.
Notably, Oscar-winner Tom Hanks strove for this with “Forrest Gump,” while nominee Brat Pitt tried with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” However, the former needed a younger actor to cover the childhood segments, and the latter relied on a team of stand-ins and some pioneering VFX. Manny’s arc is all on Radcliffe, and it’s an amazing acting achievement.
On top of all that, Manny is a role with no map. There’s no archival footage to study. No research to rely on, no source material to scour for clues. Just the question: How would a person behave if he awoke in a body with no memories, no movement, and only one friend in the world?
Radcliffe channels his natural charisma and contagious enthusiasm into Manny’s incredible arc to make this seemingly preposterous film so much more than fart jokes and bromance. While there’s a big beating heart at the center of the Daniels’ screenplay, it’s easy to imagine how its execution might have been fouled by an actor who couldn’t manage the precarious balance of sick and sweet. Radcliffe’s soft blue eyes grow sad as Manny asks, “If my best friend is hiding his farts from me, what else is he hiding?” With this vulnerable delivery, the Daniels’ dedicatedly silly dialogue packs an emotional wallop that presses tears from moviegoers who were racked with giggles just moments before.
Radcliffe even masters a specific American accent, a performance device that aided Forest Whitaker and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in their respective wins for “The Last King of Scotland” and “Capote.” Between the accent work, the physical challenge of his performance, the rejection of vanity, and working against his niche, the only Oscar-friendly element “Swiss Army Man” lacks is that seductive “based on real events” title card. No joke: Seven of the past 10 winners of Best Actor were headlining biopics.
And yet for all this, Radcliffe has no hope of Oscar notice. “Swiss Army Man” is just too out there. Though aiming to promote the finest films modern American cinema has to offer, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tends to follow middle-brow definitions of what defines “Best.” Typically that means dramas, particularly biopics. Peruse Oscar’s history, and you’ll find a comedy here and there. But unless it’s about Hollywood itself (“Birdman,” “The Artist”), no film all that weird will make it through the Academy’s nomination process. And even if it does, its performances are taken for granted.
Consider last year. The gonzo action epic “Mad Max: Fury Road” earned a remarkable 10 nominations, but none were in the performance categories. Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, who electrified audiences and critics with their iconic anti-heroes, were left out in the cold. No, Daniel Radcliffe will not get an Oscar nod for “Swiss Army Man.” But by the Academy’s own unspoken tenets, he damn well should.
In this role, he stepped out of the comfort zone of Hollywood glamor, and gamely submerged himself in the mad vision of two first-time filmmakers. He surrendered his good looks to off-putting makeup, his body to his scene partner, and his reputation to a risky endeavor that sounds positively insane on paper. He took exactly the kinds of gambles we pray to see high-paid stars attempt. And in a sense he won, helping to create a film that is decidedly niche and low-brow, but also strangely beautiful, warmly poignant, and resoundingly original.
“Swiss Army Man” will not be Radcliffe’s “Revenant,” because despite its prestigious reputation, the Oscars is not a true meritocracy. It’s a system that tends to buttress traditional dramas while often ignoring the exciting explorations new talent is making with the form (“Whiplash,” “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are exceptions that prove the rule). Yes, the Academy is starting to dismantle its largely senior white male voting body by adding more diverse members who might be willing to vote for a “Beasts of No Nation” or “Straight Outta Compton.” Let’s hope they are also willing to embrace the joy and beauty to be found in “lowly” genre film.