Life, death and love are rarely easy to deal with or understand, in fact often these things just seem to get tougher and tougher.
The newly released Swiss Army Man, directed by pop promo director team Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, or the two Daniels as I will call them for the purposes of brevity, deals directly or indirectly with these oft painful themes in a most peculiar way, or should that be in what the filmmakers would like to think is a most peculiar way.
The film stars Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood) and another Daniel, this time Radcliffe, he of Harry Potter fame as two buddies stranded on an island though this is a friendship with a twist.
Dano plays Hank, a man who is attempting suicide after being lost on an island, when he sees a corpse wash ashore portrayed by Radcliffe whom he names Manny.
Hank develops an initially one sided friendship with the dead body and discovers that he can manipulate the cadaver like a multi-purpose tool (hence the title) and ends up slowly reanimating him from the dead by teaching him what it is to be and what it might mean, to be alive and to love.
The two debutant film directors clearly think that they have made a truly unique and super weird film, one that will divide critics and audiences alike but a film that will engender passion and love amongst its enthusiasts as much as it does derision from its detractors.
But anyone who remembers films such as eighties “classic” Weekend At Bernie’s, Samuel Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or has read Robinson Crusoe will know that there is only so many ways you can dress up a pig – he might be wearing funny Bermuda shorts but it’ still a bloody pig, and here the films wilful and increasingly irritating “strangeness” represents nothing more than a smokescreen behind which not much is going on.
It is never made clear what is real and what is in the mind of Hank as he uses the multi task like cadaver of Manny to bring him back to civilisation, firstly using the ever flatulent corpse as a makeshift jet ski to escape being stranded on the island and later using those same farts to escape the unwanted attention of a hungry Grizzly Bear.
It’s clear that the two Daniels owe a debt to filmmakers such as Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, who also deal in all things twee but where Gondry’s films never descend into such mawkish and badly written sentimentality here the results are less than the sum of their parts.
Dano, who has a tendency to overplay the vulnerabilities of the characters he embodies gives the sort of performance you would expect here, utterly committed and intense while Daniel Radcliffe has found his perfect role playing a dead man.
The two actors are let down by a poor script that thinks it’s extremely funny and insightful when it is neither.
The fact that the material is so utterly annoying is the real issue above all else. There is something incredibly frustrating about watching a man (literally) drag a corpse around with him everywhere he goes for over an hour and a half, and the already mentioned forays into Michel Gondry imagination-land feels just like a poor man’s version.
The constant fart jokes outstay their welcome very quickly much like most farts and a central running thread of Manny’s ever present libido, assisted by rigor mortis is funny for about a second before it too descends into boredom and banality.
Obviously we are supposed to be thinking about big themes here like the aforementioned life, death and love, and there are some touching moments here but these are constantly undermined by a sort of clever clogs considered vulgarity which wears thin almost immediately. Later revelations about the main character do more to alienate him from the audience rather than the obviously intended polar effect sought.
Swiss Army Man caused walkouts from the audience when it screened at Sundance earlier this year but unless these are people who have never seen a film before I can only imagine these walkouts were inspired by the insipid nature of the onscreen action rather than due to shocked sensibilities.
For all its willingness to shock at its core lies quite a sentimental and straightforward film and the film is not without its merits. There is certainly fun being had with the visuals on show and the fantasy scenes were Hank fashions people and places from found items is more average Be Kind Rewind than the superlative Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the performances are nothing if not dedicated and honest.
If the two Daniels had cared more about their story, characters and what they are trying to say than how much they could deal in faux bad taste in order to shock and upset perhaps everyone would be still in their cinema seats by the movies over egged and flatulent end.
Something around here stinks alright and it’s not just the farts.