Monday, July 4, 2016

F.T.: The Flatulent Terrestrial


Well, there might be weirder movies out there, but very, very few wear their weirdness this well.

Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
With Paul Dano (Hank), Daniel Radcliffe (Manny), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Sarah)

Spoiler alert: moderate

In Swiss Army Man, we have a film written and directed by a pair of men, both named Dan.  In fact, there's a real shitload of "Dans" involved in this movie.  Behind the camera, we have Kwan and Scheinert; and in front of it we have Radcliffe, making three.  You can even count four, if you include Paul Dano.  Now, I only belabor this incredibly insignificant point because Kwan and Scheinert, making one of the most self-assured feature debuts you'll ever see, have chosen to go by the collective name of "Daniels."  Not even "the Daniels," which, at least, would be marginally sufferable—unlike the article-free "Daniels," which is pedal-to-the-medal fucking terrible.  But, then, the wonderful thing about the specific composition of Kwan and Scheinert's onscreen credit is that it's also the single worst part of their whole movie.

Well, then: can you tell I liked it?  The best way to describe [the] Daniels' Swiss Army Man, I think, is to call it an emotional journey tied to a very particular story mechanic, and while the emotional journey the film undertakes could have been just one more tale about one more dime-a-dozen sad 20something, the surrealist story mechanic that gives it shape is one of the strangest damned things you'll ever see, and it winds up infusing a less-than-worthy sad 20something tale with an energy and a depth that makes it more interesting than literally any sad 20something tale I can name offhand.  (Indeed, it's actually possible there aren't any.)  But whatever else it is, Swiss Army Man is almost certainly the most uniquely entertaining movie of the year, and whether that's important for anyone else or not, it is for me, considering that I haven't been able to give a new movie a perfect score in something like fourteen damned months.

Not that I wish to oversell it.  Instead, I'll tell you what it's about, and you can be the judge: lost on a deserted island after running away from his problems on the mainland, our loser hero Hank has used up his meager food supplies and even more meager psychological resources, and so—in the very moment of his introduction—we discover that he has presently fashioned a noose out of rope, and is preparing to strangle himself to death instead of face hunger and loneliness for even one second more.  (Yes, I do mean strangle himself: Hank's suicide plan, like many other things related to Hank, is quite direly incompetent.)  But that's when Manny appears, washing up on the shore of Hank's private island.

Hank, naturally, is ecstatic.  There's only one problem: Manny is already dead.  But Hank pokes at him anyway, and realizes that his decomposition has gifted him with unbelievably powerful farts.  It is upon this curious fact that our bedraggled castaway conceives a plan that never even once occurred to Tom Hanks: he shall ride this corpse he's found right back to the mainland, much as one might ride a jet ski.

This brings you up to date on the first five minutes of the picture.

Somehow, this actually works.  And, apparently because Hank owes the corpse a debt, he drags Manny along with him, giving him the name he will bear, and talking to him as he might a trusted friend.  And, soon enough, Manny starts to talk back.  Hank's terrified—for about two seconds—but he quickly grows accustomed to Manny's pale and fish-eyed face, and Hank takes it upon himself to teach Manny, who has forgotten all that he might have known in life, all the ways of the human world, at least such as Hank understands them.  In the meantime, they hike through the wilderness on their way back home, and Manny reveals a steady supply of other useful powers—spitting water like a fountain, chopping through trees with his mortally-rigored toughness, shooting rocks out of his mouth like a machinegun, and much, much more.  Still, truth must be told, nothing is ever quite so impressive as the Raytheon-grade rocketry of his amazing farts.  (Also, speaking personally, I could've used some booger jokes.)

We have a buddy comedy on our hands, then, and a very specific kind of buddy comedy, at that, fitting squarely enough into the small but robust subgenre of stories about Losers and their Magical Friends, whether they be supernatural but real, as in E.T., or supernatural and completely imaginary, as in Fight Club.  (Though here, I should offer a warning: Swiss Army Man is not the kind of movie where this distinction even remotely matters.  So don't get your hopes up too high for any kind twist ending, even when it effectively feints in the direction of every possible twist ending it could have, before finally deciding to close upon the most uplifting note it possibly could, mainly by copying its most important predecessor in extraordinarily exacting ways.)

Anyway, it is, in some respects, an active parody of those kind of stories: it's hard to avoid the impression that our titular multi-tool is intended to poke fun at the arbitrary miracles wrought by (for example) E.T.'s finger, by turning the alien's biological wonders into an experimental hybrid of gross-out comedy and corpse-based body horror.  And, while I can't say it took me anything less than a full quarter of an hour to drop my defenses and start enjoying Kwan and Scheinert's morbid smorgasbord, once I did, I discovered to my delight that I was in the middle of the most worthwhile comedy in ages.

And yet: even if the Daniels' Spielbergian premise and their unexpectedly maudlin, pseudo-Spielbergian tone hadn't already clued you in, then the direct quotations from Spielberg's movies certainly will—in fact, the only thing Manny remembers at all, though he cannot quite identify it, is John Williams' theme to Jurassic Park.  (Soon, we'll even find the two pals putting on a shadowbox play of E.T.—because Swiss Army Man sure as hell isn't above wearing its influences on its sleeve.  Altogether, the film's remarkably unafraid to call to attention to its own artificiality: the soundtrack is a marvelous thing, and is centered around a song that plays during a montage, which is called "Montage," and sung by Radcliffe and Dano themselves.  I assume it does this because Kwan and Scheinert gamble that you won't mind a hint of metafictionality, and, quite happily, they were right.)

That is, when you say, "If you idiots had spent less time on arts and crafts, and more time hiking, maybe you'd have gotten home sooner," you won't say it with any actual venom.

So the question that weighs on my mind, as I write about it, is this: if all the Daniels' had made here was simply a delightful collection of comic skits, based upon bodily functions and a few well-deployed pop cultural references, would that have been enough?  (Though when I say "the Daniels," I absolutely mean Radcliffe too, for his work in this film is nothing short of exquisite: the man is a perfect combination of Weekend At Bernie's corpse acting, compellingly guileless naivete, and absolutely faultless comic timing.  In fairness, his performance could not exist without the seemingly-expensive effects-based humor that Kwan and Scheinert throw at him; but, then, without Radcliffe, Kwan and Scheinert's movie would've fallen apart on a conceptual level long before it even got funny, let alone before it got to anything else.)

The "anything else" part is the key here, and I'm sure about two things above all: that Swiss Army Man is an impossibly moving motion picture, made with supreme attention to the emotional tenor of its ongoing story; and that it cheats like a motherfucker to get there, by using its genre and its premise in order to become a much more fascinating philosophical meditation than any fart-comedy has any right to be.  That meditation is delivered by way of the meaningfully-funny, feature-length conversation between Hank and Manny about the way people function, and why we are the way we are.  Hank, of course, is presently forced into explaining the most basic facts about life to Manny's tabula rasa—who, conveniently, remembers how to speak English, but also has no idea what it is that humans do.  (Clearly, there's a whole lot of Calvin and Hobbes here.  The main difference, the post-pubescent, R-rated scatology notwithstanding, is that Manny simply doesn't possess Hobbes' knowing condescension—even if he does come to more-or-less the same conclusions about what a heap of nonsense human existence can be.)

What it gets at is subtle enough that it took me a few days to really put it together: on an obvious level, Manny's grotesque existence is just a starting point for a rumination about what it means, if it means anything, to be a biological organism that knows that, eventually, it's going to shit itself and die.  And if there was no more overlap between the pretensions of the piece and the zany flatulence of the premise, that would be okay, although I think there is more.  The title refers, naturally enough, to Manny's arsenal of abilities, which permit Hank to survive his ordeal; but it also refers, maybe with just as much force, to what Manny means to Hank, which is constantly shifting as their relationship twists and turns.  And so, Manny is Hank's tool, pet, child, best friend, lover, and—at last—his spiritual savior.  Importantly, our story returns over and over to the image of "Sarah"—and I say "the image" with a little bit of specificity.  What we learn about "Sarah" is, well, practically fucking nothing, because Hank doesn't even know her (though, quite inappropriately, he has some pictures of her on his dying smartphone).  Despite this seemingly fatal limitation, Hank has built up a whole elaborate fantasy around what he's decided that she thinks, feels, and believes, without ever once speaking to her, which is extremely upsetting on paper, and oddly sweet in its depiction on the screen (that is, until it's not, which is the point of the thing).  But if we're looking for it, it also mirrors everything else that's happening in the movie, which is Hank's imposition of a vivid semblance of life upon a literally empty vessel—namely, Manny, the Goddamned rotting corpse who came back to life to teach Hank a lesson about relationships.

And so let's not underplay Dano's contributions to the thing, even if Radcliffe is the show: it is not the hardest thing in the world for an actor, especially an actor with Dano's skillset, to play an isolated, lonely, horny, and vaguely-gross dork.  But Dano does play him with profound humanity, and, maybe more importantly, with just enough honesty to ribbon Hank's pitiable state with a deeply self-centered unpleasantness, which at least partially explains why nobody likes him but a dead man who doesn't know anybody else.  So, on one hand, this is another movie that explains why it's necessary, for one's spiritual fulfillment, to annoy a random woman on the bus with one's romantic overtures; but, on the other, it suggests that this is stupid, and that our hero is stupid, and that the most important part of growing up is finally learning that other people aren't just things with various functions, after all.  Sure, our old pal Eliott managed to learn this important fact at age ten; but, with some folks, it does take a little longer.

If all that makes it sound like Swiss Army Man is just insufferably arty, perhaps it is, although I'd argue that it's far too clever to fall into any of the usual art movie traps.  For one thing, it's funny, in a way that movies with points usually aren't.  It moves like emotional quicksilver through its story, and—edited with something indistinguishable from magic—it manages to alloy sadness and laughter into a thoroughgoing, mystifying absurdity that I couldn't deny, even if I tried.  (And I did try.  If you think it was painful to drop my guard and laugh at this fucking thing, imagine tearing up, in a public theater, because of the wacky antics of Fartman and the Creep.)

But, perhaps most importantly of all, it is not beyond wonder—I said there's Calvin and Hobbes in here, and I'll repeat it—and it takes a very, very special kind of film to wring a sense of wonder out of a corpse's magnetic erection.  But, you know, Swiss Army Man really is that kind of movie.

Score:  10/10


  1. Man alive, did I love this movie. It's such a frustrating, almost involuntary act to enjoy Swiss Army Man, but it's so so worth breaking through that crust.

    1. Right on, B. It's definitely my favorite of the year so far. 2016 has been looking up lately.