Those flabbergasted reports out of Sundance haven’t exactly misled you: Swiss Army Man contains of symphonic flatulence and magical boners. But behind the cruder devices you’ve undoubtedly heard about is an uncommonly openhearted and non-judgmental film. A remarkable debut by Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, also their first screenplay) the film is imaginatively crafted at almost every turn, more original than almost anything seen this summer. Don’t let the pubescent fascinations fool you, this film is more soulful than you would expect.
Swiss wastes no time getting into the adventures, opening on Hank (Paul Dano) preparing to hang himself after being stranded for an extended time alone on a tiny island. The dead body of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore to not only derail Hank’s death, but also to play savior and survival tool via that post-mortem gas and boner compass. As Manny becomes more (re)animated and the all-purpose device of the title, Hank is also educating him on the boy-child psyche that freezes him mentally back on the mainland.
You could consider it Eternal Sunshine of the Boy Scout’s Mind (at Bernie’s), but the film defies being so easily reduced or compared. Its puberty ruminations alone are rarely this sincere and charming, without the twee pitfalls too commonplace in the tired “man learns to grow up” Sundance heartwarmers.
The script is silly and serious, never coddling ideas of fragile masculinity but nevertheless kind to its subject. It’s unexpectedly refreshing to have a film dive into the psyche of boner jokes and daddy issues without the usual self-service (Garden State) or self-congratulation (The Hangover) that make young adult male stories often insufferable – though you may obviously disagree if the steady sound of farts in this one puts you off. No one dies so that Hank can learn to grow up, no magical illness in a loved one to bring out his better qualities – through Manny, Hank has to explain himself, justify his bruises. To the film’s credit, he’s not off the hook after he’s done so.
Dano and Radcliffe have surprising chemistry in this most bizarre of odd couples. Like last year’s Love & Mercy, Dano continues to show that he’s one of our more underappreciated young actors, capable of emotional depth and believability in even outstanding surroundings. He’s likely to be outfavored by the physical prowess of Radcliffe’s hilarious work, though the two feed off eachother’s energy in remarkable ways. Radcliffe ability for humor and physical nuance exceeds expectations though, somehow giving Manny depth beyond the script’s punchlines.
The film fumbles by abandoning most of its better qualities in the finale, muddying both the fantastical charm and its own identity analysis. The reckless abandon of the Daniels’ confidence is immediately missed with the film unclear of how to complete itself, becoming a completely different and less intriguing film at its close. But despite the major final missteps, the film’s melancholy glee cannot be contained, sending you out buzzing on its imagination.