Friday, October 14, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: Swiss Army Man

So: the farting corpse movie. Which progressively becomes the talking corpse movie; the corpse with a stiffy movie; and the gender confused corpse movie. And which finally, sad to say, identifies as the isn’t-this-movie-with-the-corpse-over-yet movie.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island and not coping well his entry-level “monarch of all I survey” opportunities. In fact, he’s on the verging of tendering his resignation. That’s “tendering his resignation” as in hanging himself, by the way. Then Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore and Hank is initially delighted at the prospect of company. The discovery that Manny is dead throws him back into despair, until he realises that Manny’s incessant flatulence can be used as a propulsive system. Delighted, Hank escapes the island by using Manny as a jet-ski.

This is all prior to the opening credits, incidentally.

Making landfall, Hank goes in search of civilisation. En route, he utilises Manny in a variety of ways. He ignites Manny’s farts to set campfires. He uses him as a water dispenser (don’t ask). He triggers Manny’s gag reflex by means of a kind of Heimlich manoeuvre, operating him as a kind of human (or at least recently deceased human) bazooka. He follows the direction of Manny’s erection, engendered by a model in a Sports Illustrated magazine and sustained by the cellphone picture of Hank’s crush (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), like a compass.

And at a certain point during their survivalist trek through the wilderness, Manny begins to talk. Which is nice for Hank because it gives him some company. But frustrating in that Manny can’t remember a single thing about his life. Or about life, period. Obliged to explain everything from modes of transport to falling in love by way of the plot of ‘Jurassic Park’, Hank resorts to recreating entire swathes of human society and experience by means of ramshackle models built from bits of junk that he finds in the woods.

This business gives the film its best – and most feel-good – sequence. For a while, the fart jokes, dick jokes and poop jokes are kicked so far into the background as to be forgotten about, and ‘Swiss Army Man’ enthusiastically and wholeheartedly finds its tone. For twenty minutes or so, it’s quite wonderful. Then writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan throw in a romantic rivalry subplot (trust me: shy guy vs dead guy for the hand of a woman who doesn’t even know that either of them exist is nowhere near as funny as it sounds, not that it sounds particularly funny in the first place), before shifting the dialectic to include a ‘Performance’-style examination of troilism and gender politics.

Which isn’t to say the material couldn’t have worked, but it drastically changes the film’s register (the filmmakers having already relied on the audience buying into the tonal shift from the scatological to the whimsical), to say nothing of leeching out the humour. And even then Scheinert and Kwan (or “Daniels” as they rather pretentiously bill themselves) aren’t finished: the final shift in both tone and narrative, as Hank and Manny are clumsily reintroduced into human society, utterly derails the film.

When it works, there is much to admire. The performances are fantastic. Radcliffe’s the best he’s ever been. The music works well, often providing an ironic commentary of its own. The montages are very well edited and, at its most imaginative, the film soars. As a half hour short, perhaps end stopped by some Tarkovskian images that shows Hank and Manny, at a large enough remove, bordered by human society but without being cognizant of it, ‘Swiss Army Man’ could have been a masterpiece in miniature. Even at feature length, but chopped down to about 75 minutes, a bloody good film could have cohered. Unfortunately, its 97 minutes outstay their welcome, the tone gets more ponderous as the directors scrabble for an ending, and it’s hard to shake the sense of being short-changed as you leave the cinema.

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