Is it possible to admire a movie’s ambition without really buying its execution? Of course, it is. It happens all the time. Take the Sundance buzz-magnet that’s hitting theaters this week. Already known as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie,” directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s deranged bromantic adventure, Swiss Army Man, is way more inventive and interesting than that dismissive shorthand makes it sound. But it’s also a hot, strange mess that never quite comes together the way it should.
Paul Dano plays Hank, a shaggy, half-mad castaway on a deserted island, who’s about to hang himself when he spots a strange figure washed up on the beach. After lord knows how long on his own, the prospect of someone— anyone—to talk to gives him renewed hope. After all, misery loves company. The only problem is, the man sprawled out in the lapping surf is dead. He names him Manny, and he’s played by a pasty, waterlogged Daniel Radcliffe. The set-up here is that Dano’s Hank is so lonely and so close to losing his grip on reality that he brings Manny back to life like a Weekend at Bernie’s character with his imagination. He also turns him into his own personal all-utility Swiss Army survival tool. Since Manny is a particularly flatulent corpse, Hank uses that gas power as propulsion, riding Manny’s corpse like a Jet-Ski across the waves. And he uses Manny’s postmortem erections as a field compass in the jungle. At this point, you’ll either be heading for the exits (as some audience members at Sundance did) or you’ll be solidly on board the Farting Corpse Express.
The writer-director team, Scheinert and Kwan, are best known for the absurd, experimental music videos they make under the name “Daniels,” and Swiss Army Man, the duo’s first feature film, certainly looks great. Even if you’re rolling your eyes at all of the boners and ass-thunder on screen, there’s no denying that the movie’s fantasy sequences are stunning in a hand-crafted, Michel Gondry sort of way. But despite all of the film’s whimsical, merry-prankster gags and daredevil visual ideas, it never quite delivers the emotional payoff it aspires to. Like a 10-year-old cracking potty jokes at recess, Swiss Army Man is so impressed with its own juvenile outrageousness that it forgets to do anything else, like touch your heart. C+