Labeled “the farting corpse movie” at Sundance, the forcefully quirky “Swiss Army Man” certainly expels a lot in trying to convince you its bruised-emo wilderness yarn is whimsically imaginative. Its dynamic duo -- Paul Dano’s stranded neurotic and Daniel Radcliffe’s gaseous cadaver – may be one of modern cinema’s more willfully odd pairings.
But there’s more than a whiff of overwrought dude pity to this spottily amusing absurdist adventure from feature debut writers/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who show they have style (and methane) to burn.
An opening suicide attempt is always an attention-grabber. So is an intestinally noisy dead man. Such is the meet-cute for upright, whimpering castaway Hank (Dano) and the beached guy (Radcliffe) he glimpses just before trying to hang himself. Hank is so happy to encounter someone else – even a not-living someone else – that he quickly treats him like an instant buddy and names him Manny. And what a buddy, thinks Hank, who uses his new companion’s propulsive flatulence to ride him across the water to a different shore that looks a lot closer to civilization.
The corpse-as-jet-ski is an exhilarating gag, and an indication that the Daniels – as the filmmakers call themselves – are not skittish about the rudely fantastical. But they’re also earnest about working genuine buddy warmth out of their bizarre set-up, which sees Manny become a corporeal savior of sorts, as both a supply source when water starts ejecting from his mouth, and a versatile tool reminiscent of the descriptive title.
Most notably, though, this rag doll carcass starts talking in a manner that suggests a naïve visitor eager to learn, and Hank – an insular loner ready to introduce his new pal to such experiences as the majesty of John Williams’ “Jurassic Park” theme and the adolescent joys of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue -- enters into therapeutic confessions about his shame-ridden, emotionally choked life.
As they make their way through hilly woods, Hank embarks on an elaborate play-acting project with Manny dedicated to addressing his near-stalker-ish affection for a beautiful bus rider (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he’s never had the courage to approach.
Visually, the filmmakers operate in a Gondry-esque, Jonze-ian world of practical effects work goosed with playful camerawork and punchy editing. If you’ve seen their reputation-cementing music video for “Turn Down for What,” that’s the concentrated version of their handmade-plus style. And it’s a world Dano and Radcliffe work easily with their physical performances, the former wide-eyed and restless, if not dissimilar to other lost souls in his repertoire, the latter dead-eyed and deadpan, suitably erasing his wizard-boy past with each prat flop and backside bleat.
And yet a little of this manic creativity goes a long way, especially when the toolbox is flatulence, erections and a utilitarian corpse, and the emotional palette is limited and cloying, especially when the finale aims for smirk and seriousness and winds up with neither. Nodding to mad-scientist parables and freaky ventriloquism stories, it’s safe to say the Daniels have hit upon a decidedly unconventional metaphor for the cloudy, socially stunted turbulence of lonely nerds trying to figure out a way to engage with the world. But even with all the design-rich invention and admirably committed weirdness on display in “Swiss Army Man,” we’re still in the land of immature males, poor-me feelings and superpowers. While the movie focuses on one end of the body, you might be left sighing from the other.
‘Swiss Army Man’
MPAA rating: R for language and sexual material
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood