Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Swiss Army Man"

 4.5 / 5 

Midway through the mildly shocking, mildly offensive and unexpectedly affecting Swiss Army Man, one of the main characters watches a shadow-puppet version of famous movies performed by the other.  For a fleeting moment, a cutout version of Elliot and E.T. riding a flying bicycle flickers on the screen.

At that moment, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial flickered across the private movie screen in my brain, and I remembered how the movie is about a wrinkly, creepy-looking creature who appears out of nowhere and becomes the guiding force of of a boy who needs a friend. They have quite an adventure together.

That's when it dawned on me: Swiss Army Man is, despite the ghastliness of its setup (which I'll get to in a moment) is as sweet-spirited and awed by the enormity of life as Steven Spielberg's film. It's about a creepy-looking creature who appears out of nowhere and becomes the guiding force of a man who needs a friend.  They have quite an adventure together.

Though I wouldn't dream of spoiling Swiss Army Man's final scene, it contains some famous Spielbergian cinematic tropes, as a group of people watch with wide eyes and open mouths as something they never imagined possible happens right in front of their eyes.  A little girl laughs, because she knows that this impossible thing is true.

I watched Swiss Army Man with a similar smile on my face.  It's about loneliness, isolation and despair, yet Swiss Army Man made me giddy, in part because I couldn't wait to see what happened next to its characters, and in part because it's so willing to take bold choices with its story, its actors, even its soundtrack, that it made me happy to be watching a film by filmmakers (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively "Daniels") who are genuinely excited by their medium.

Every bit of Swiss Army Man is an impossibility, beginning with the fate of Hank, who has somehow wound up on a tiny little desert island and has grown despondent.  Hank is played by Paul Dano, whose sad, somehow innocent countenance is perfectly suited to the movie.  Just as he's about to expedite his departure from both the island and the world, he sees something on the small beach -- the lifeless body of a man.

Doing what dead bodies apparently do, the man is farting.  A lot.  And that gives Hank an idea.  In what has already become the scene that defines the movie, Hank puts the body in the water and rides it, like a Jet Ski, to a different shore.  Allegedly, the farting and the Jet Skiing and some of the other undeniably unsavory things that happen in Swiss Army Man has prompted many people to walk out of the film, disgusted -- and, indeed, when I saw the movie a man got up about 45 minutes into it and never came back.

Despite all those impossibilities, there is something real at the core of Swiss Army Man, and it's a shame that some people have such fragile sensibilities, because Swiss Army Man turns out to be a film that wants to explore some of the big, grand themes of life.  It believes that the world is a bigger place than any of us will ever know, that love matters, that life is always weird and unpredictable, and that even its disappointments can be filled with a certain beauty.

The body is played by Daniel Radcliffe, who has at last transcended Harry Potter and wizardom to become a fearless and committed actor.  Hank starts to carry the farting body with him, and just as the sinking feeling sets in that Swiss Army Man will by the "If They Mated" offspring of Castaway and Weekend at Bernie's, it becomes something totally different, as the corpse starts to talk.

No, the body, which comes to be named Manny, doesn't exactly spring to life, remaining almost entirely lifeless except for the uncanny ability to hold a conversation -- and a certain twinkle in its eye.  Manny proves to have a number of unexpected uses, hence the movie's title, but also is curious about the life he doesn't remember having had.

As Hank makes his way through the forest, looking for someone to save him, he carries Manny with him, and he tries to explain the world to the memory-challenged dead man, and they discover a seeming mystery: the identity of the woman whose photo is on Manny's iPhone.

Their trek through the forest begins in absurdity, but takes a circuitous route to some extraordinary emotional insight.  Sensitivity, revelation and a sweet empathy were the furthest things from my mind when I sat down to watch Swiss Army Man, yet the movie about a dead guy turns out to have a warm and beating heart.

Equally unexpectedly, it's also a sort-of musical, with haunting, melodious songs that are as shocking and profane as the movie itself, and equally insightful.

Yes, Swiss Army Man begins with the humor so puerile that even Adam Sandler might find it ridiculous, but that shocking behavior is merely what forces the attention.  Once that is out of the way (well, to a degree, it never is out of the way -- this is, after all, a movie in which a dead man's erection is an important plot point), Swiss Army Man displays the visual inventiveness and emotional complexity of such realistic fantasies as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show, with an underlying mysteriousness that never yields, not even in those final scenes.

Make no doubt: There's a very good chance you're temperamentally predisposed to hating Swiss Army Man, and if the idea of being challenged in the movies scares you, by all means stay away.

But if you don't hate it, then right about the time that Hank has to risk his life to rescue the already-dead Manny from drowning, you may find that you're more engrossed by its story, more invested in the fates of its characters, and more moved by their outcomes, than you've been in any mainstream film you've seen this summer, if not this year.

Viewed July 2, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


1 comment:

  1. Nice review. Overall, I didn't love this movie, but I did find it fascinating.

    - Zach (