Swiss Army Man (2016)
Director: Dan Kwan; Daniel Scheinart.
Starring: Paul Dano; Daniel Radcliffe; Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Plot: A hopeless man stranded on a deserted island befriends a dead body and together they go on a surreal journey to get home.
Daniel Radcliffe’s latest foray into the relative obscurity of North America’s independent film circuit comes in the shape and form of Dan Kwan’s and Daniel Scheinart’s screwball comedy Swiss Army Man, in which the former Harry Potter star lends the marketability of his name and face to a role unlike any other in his career in support of a fantastic performance from Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Looper).
Swiss Army Man opens with Radcliffe’s character, Manny, washing up on the shore of a beach where Paul Dano’s character, Hank, has been stranded and is about to hang himself. Curious as to the condition of Manny, Hank approaches his body and tries to revive him. He fails. Then Manny passes wind; he farts. At first it seems of poor taste and the sort of low-brow comedy you’d not expect from such a leading duo, and then Hank uses Manny’s incredible ‘wind-power’ to Jet Ski his way off the island. It’s ludicrous, but it’s presented in such a way that it looks and sounds like one of the happiest moments of a cheesy rom-com, or even the escape in Castaway. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, and it sets the tone for what’s to come: a cleverly constructed but ultimately silly screwball comedy. The thing is: if you don’t like this scene, you’re not going to like the film.
Perhaps the best way to describe Swiss Army Man is to term it as “divisive”. The movie confronts dark themes involving the above mentioned suicide attempt, as well as mental illness, obsessive crushes, family related issues and so on, and it does so with such a brash and obvious attempt at ‘normalising’ them through humour that you’ll either fall in love with this film, or you’ll hate it. The handling of such themes is generally respectful and never forced into the story, but instead developed at the core of the story without being the centerpiece of the picture. Cleverly, Kwan and Scheinart keep the humour and the performances at the center of their presentation, and it is certainly a funny movie… if you like this kind of thing.
Paul Dano is utterly fantastic in what is a tough lead role that required constant effectiveness throughout the entire run-time in order to tell the story. Dano was often the only animated character on screen, and while Radcliffe’s performance was entirely watchable and often attention drawing for being almost completely the opposite, the pressure on Dano to light up the screen through movement was something that clearly required a more physical approach to his role than what he’d otherwise been known for in some of his famed dramatic roles. Pulling off the physical aspects, which included full-body comedy and an array of almost over-the-top facial expressions, was critical to the success of the movie and something that Dano carried with a huge amount of intelligence, carefully avoiding over-playing the character and instead offering an expressionistic yet utterly identifiable character of whom was worth following through this most bizarre journey.
Radcliffe, in comparison, was tasked with creating an identifiable character without the ability to express the character’s emotion in the same way or, indeed, in any truly standard way at all. Naturally, the duty of playing a character of whom was dead was something any top actor would have liked to have tasked themselves with, but what Radcliffe does with the help of some excellent work from the two directors, the make-up team and particularly the editor, is create a funny and somewhat adorable child-like companion to Dano’s Hank; something that creates a sense of idenitifiability for the otherwise ‘niche’ key protagonist.
It is the work of the directors and their collaboration with the editor particularly – and, in turn, the material in the script and the actors delivering the dialogue – that really projects comedy in Swiss Army Man. The movie isn’t a referential comedy and thus relies on more of the tried and tested techniques of grabbing laughs, yet does so with a clever cynicism that overawes the ‘everyday-ness’ of the editorial presentation in particular and brings to the screen a type of humour and glamorous stupidity that we’ve started getting less and less of since the dawn of movies from the likes of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen.
Ultimately, it is in these aspects that the movie excels, yet it is in the same aspects that the movie will undoubtedly fail in the eyes of many. I referenced earlier in this review that Swiss Army Man will be judged as a “divisive” movie, and of that there is very little doubt, but to this particular reviewer this Kwan & Scheinart movie was original, creative and had the cojones to try something new and oh-so very millennial. It probably won’t go down as a modern classic but you’ll be happy to have seen it… most likely.