Review: Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano form an explosive friendship in ‘Swiss Army Man’

Daniel Radcliffe, left, and Paul Dano in the movie "Swiss Army Man."

Daniel Radcliffe, left, and Paul Dano in the movie “Swiss Army Man.”

(Joyce Kim/A24 Films)

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