“If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit,” Hank (Paul Dano) says to his best friend Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a talking corpse, before teaching him exactly what it is. Hank, who was just about to kill himself before discovering Manny—gifted with a number of imaginative abilities, including farting so powerfully he functions as a jet ski and having his boner serve as a compass—has dedicated himself to keeping him around and using him for survival while also helping him learn to live again. If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is, and Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, better known as DANIELS, have made a living out of making ridiculous works of art.
Aesthetically and tonally speaking, DANIELS’ films aren’t for everyone. The best barometer for tolerance of their sometimes absurd and often over-the-top humor are their music videos, particularly one like Lil Jon and DJ Snake’s “Turn Down For What.” Working with cinematographer Larkin Seiple again works wonders for them, as every inventive action that Hank utilizes Manny for is captured in all its glossy, over-saturated wonder, sometimes sped-up or slowed down for impact and laughs.
Much like their high-concept music videos (and a short film like Interesting Ball), the entertainment value of their work sometimes wears thin due to excessive repetition and the humor being a little too disjointed. Swiss Army Man moves wildly between its absurd Weekend at Bernie’s humor and plot and all sorts of existential musings, as well as romantic ones. It does, thankfully, subvert one of the greatest tropes of indie features that debut at Sundance: that shyly watching a girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from afar and taking pictures of her because you like her is romantic. It’s not. It’s fucking creepy.
Part of what Hank tries to project onto Manny is his adoration for a girl he stalked on the bus that he doesn’t know, quite literally recreating set pieces while Manchester Orchestra’s score plays and repeats the word “love” in the most melodic way. It’s a hilarious contrast, and Dano’s demeanor works perfectly to emphasize just how pathetic Hank is. His projection of his own life makes for plenty of humorous set pieces and montages between the two actors, all accompanied by the fact that Radcliffe’s body is more or less a rag doll being flung left and right like a marionette on strings impossibly set up within the world they’re in. Many will reduce the former Harry Potter actor’s performance to “playing a farting corpse,” but it’s a wonder how Radcliffe actually manages to deliver some compelling, emotionally-driven lines with the limitations placed upon him.
Swiss Army Man often plays like if Michel Gondry were less interested in cartoonish, melancholic fantasy and more into bro humor and jokes about not being able to masturbate because you’re thinking about your mom. It’s fun enough though and able to catch one’s attention with a grand spectacle whenever it slows down too much. That said, it’s half-baked in its attempt to make light of the existential musings of shitty characters and the way friends exploit each other, even when one of them is dead. Fewer fart jokes and a little more of the friendly-antagonism that propelled Vincenzo Natali’s Nothing could have gone a long way to making Swiss Army Man more than just a memorable concept.
Directed by Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert; written by Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert; starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe & Mary Elisabeth Winstead; 95 minutes.
Swiss Army Man is currently experiencing a limited theatrical release.