The art of the tagline can sometimes outshine even the movie it’s trying to sell. For instance, this summer’s Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson buddy cop comedy Central Intelligence boasts the tagline, “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson.” That is such a beautifully constructed one-liner that it’s difficult to believe the film it’s selling could possibly ever live up to it. The gallows humor flatulence comedy Swiss Army Man presents a similar conundrum in its two-sentence elevator pitch the director team Daniels employed to convince actor Paul Dano to star in their debut feature: “The first fart will make you laugh. The last fart will make you cry.” There’s an audacious ambition in trying to make an audience cry at a fart that I greatly respect (and, of course, find very amusing). I don’t think Swiss Army Man quite lives up to that promise (the first fart made me laugh and the last fart also made me laugh), but I admire the Daniels for trying to get me to find genuine heart in a dead body’s flatulence. It was a lofty goal.
Paul Dano begins Swiss Army Man as a lonely shipwreck survivor attempting to hang himself in order to escape the horrors of boredom & dehydration. The film takes its gallows humor quite literally as he’s hanging from a noose and is saved from his lonely island nightmare by a farting corpse that washes ashore before him. Daniel Radcliffe plays this gaseous corpse with dead-eyed deadpan, at first silently filling the role of Wilson in this indie pop version of Cast Away, but eventually holding his own against Dano’s troubled protagonist. Dano seemingly continues his unhinged Brian Wilson impression in an alternate universe where his Love & Mercy character makes friends with a flatulent corpse instead of turning into John Cusack. He fights through personal neuroses & sings sweetly to himself as a way to cope with a world he finds cruel & a body (or two) he finds embarrassing. Much of the film’s journey is in learning about Dano’s broken heart protagonist as he bounces his skewed, dysfunctional ideas about the world off of Radcliffe’s lifeless body. The other part of that journey is in learning just what that lifeless body can do. Besides producing violent, body-shaking farts, Radcliffe’s corpse can also start fires, produce water, ride like a jetski, fire like a gun, etc. Although dead, he’s a verifiable Swiss Army man, or as the characters put it in the film, a “multi-purpose tool guy,” one with a magical, boner-driven navigation system that helps Dano find his way home. He also finds the ability to speak, despite being very dead, and because he has no recollection of his life before he was a rotting sack of farts, Dano spends much of the film teaching him how the world works (as filtered through is own hangups & neuroses). More importantly, he teaches his undead buddy about the value of love.
Did I mention that Swiss Army Man is a heartfelt love story? Did I mention that it’s also a road trip buddy comedy? Did I mention that it’s also, improbably, a musical? The director duo Daniels first cut their teeth helming music videos and it shows in their reverence for this film’s Animal Collective-style indie pop soundtrack, which bleeds beautifully into the narrative with a significant sense of thematic purpose. They’re unfortunately a lot less confident on where to take the romantic implications stirring at the movie’s core, a very exciting, unexpected turn that unfortunately peaks early & fizzles out before any meaningful destination is reached in the final act. I don’t want to fault this farting corpse buddy comedy too much for losing track of its emotional core, but it does feel as if the film were flirting with a line of romantic ambiguity it simply didn’t have the nerve to follow through on, which was admittedly disappointing even though I enjoyed the film as a whole. Swiss Army Man is overly ambitious in so many ways. Not least of all, the film tries to answer the question, “What is life?” with a full-hearted sincerity that erratically alternates between optimism & pessimism at the flip of a switch. The undead half of the central duo is essentially a child, curiously admitting, “I have a lot of questions about all the things you just said,” while the neurotic, living half explains his personal philosophy about the way things work through a depressing adherence to societal norms, fear of embarrassment, and the Law of Diminished Returns, a special cocktail that leaves him forever lonely and more than a little bit creepy. It’s possible that Swiss Army Man didn’t follow through on all of its thematic inquiries because it bit off more than it could chew, but there’s certainly no shame in that kind of wide scope ambition.
I don’t think the Daniels’ promise of a climactic fart that could make me cry ever came close to being fulfilled, but Swiss Army Man is mostly successful anyway. There may be an emotionally-distancing dedication to absurdity & artificiality at the film’s core that might’ve prevented me from connecting too closely with its central relationship, similar to the arm’s-length scholarly absurdism of this year’s equally ambitious The Lobster. Swiss Army Man has something The Lobster doesn’t, though, and it mostly takes the form of violent, body-shaking farts. The movie is genuinely fun & free-flowing from front to end, even when it’s fixated on morbid topics like how the human body relieves itself & becomes organic garbage the second it dies. Daniel Radcliffe puts in a solidly entertaining performance as the film’s undead catalyst, somehow finding weird energy in a character who resembles the Frankenstein monster after a hearty dose of heroin. (Speaking of which, after Victor Frankenstein this makes two films in a row where the actor participates in a vaguely homoerotic zombie comedy, right? Weird.) His body is also solidly entertaining as it spits, shoots, ignites, launches and, duh, farts its path through an escalating gauntlet of minute-to-minute obstacles. Paul Dano also holds his own here with a mentally/spiritually broken weirdo archetype he’s become very comfortable portraying and the always-welcome Shane Carruth & Mary Elizabeth Winstead both briefly poke their heads in just to remind you that they’re always getting involved in weird outlier projects and that you love them for it.
The Daniels also toss in a handful of reverent references to Jurassic Park & other Spielbergian fare (the Spielberg-produced Cast Away obviously among them) in a way that hammers home the idea that they love the movies & they’re giddy that they got away with making one about a farting corpse with a magical boner. They also nearly got away with making said farting corpse picture a teary-eyed romantic journey, but fell just short of that distinction. Overall, though, Swiss Army Man is far more memorable for its humor & ambition than its third act narrative shortcomings. I really enjoyed their debut, but I’m convinced the Daniels will have even better films coming down the pipeline once they learn to listen to their hearts the same way they ask the audience to listen to their farts. In the mean time, it just feels good to laugh along the scatological bleakness & divine absurdity they’ve constructed here. It’s okay that both farts made me laugh. I like to laugh.