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Film Reviews Swiss Army Man is a most unusual film but it’s not exactly compelling

Swiss Army Man, starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, is a bizarre, part dark comedy part cinematic dare of a film.

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Swiss Army Man
Written by
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Directed by
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Starring
Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

The summer movie season offers a range of familiar sights. Duelling superheroes, animated aquatic life, aliens intent on destroying Earth/the Starship Enterprise/your very hopes and dreams, etc. But one thing that has never been glimpsed before, and very likely will never be glimpsed again, is the image of a flatulent corpse used as a makeshift Jet Ski, its crazed driver intent on piloting the dead body home across the choppy waves of an unnamed sea. Welcome to the world of Swiss Army Man.

That the film – part dark comedy and part cinematic dare – is the most unusual sight you'll encounter at the movies this year is not up for debate. That is what happens, after all, when one of your two leads is a dead guy (Daniel Radcliffe, poor thing), who spends most of the movie either releasing copious amounts of bodily gas from his hairy butt or using his erect penis as a compass. And then there is the corpse's constant companion (Paul Dano), a deeply disturbed young man who has found himself stranded, first at sea and then in the woods, and who spends most of his time not trying to get home, but staging elaborate re-creations of his past life.

If any of the preceding paragraph sounds like an intriguing proposition (Cast Away meets Weekend at Bernie's!) I apologize – because while Swiss Army Man is certainly bizarre, it's not exactly compelling. Filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known simply as the "Daniels") are clearly interested in exploring, even tearing apart, the cinematic form, like cute little Pixy-Stix-powered Charlie Kaufmans. And the world they've crafted here – a whimsical land where dead dudes talk and forestry can be used to construct a home movie theatre – can be visually audacious, at times. But the intensely stylized effort is simply not enchanting enough to merit more than, say, five minutes' worth of attention, which coincidentally is about the length of a typical Daniels music video, the field in which the pair made their bones.

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Outside of the film's jagged-twee aesthetics – this is a film Wes Anderson might have made were he raised by wolves and a copy of Cracked magazine – there is not much else going on in Swiss Army Man, or at least nothing as deep as the Daniels pretend to mine. Loneliness, arrested development and the slow disintegration of the imagination are all topics of interest to the directors, but they approach each with only a cool level of ironic detachment that becomes unbearable after 90 minutes.

Swiss Army Man's narrative is also slightly more sinister than its cutesy imagery implies. Its leading (re: living) man is not some sort of sympathetic hero who triumphs over adversity, but an infantile introvert prone to obsessing over a beautiful woman he once saw on his local bus. The fact that he's paired up with a talking, farting, tumescent corpse actually makes him more relatable, which perhaps might be the point of it all, for whatever that is worth.

Pity, though, the actors saddled with the endeavour. While Dano (There Will Be Blood, Love & Mercy) can do this kind of emotionally stunted shtick in his sleep by now, he still brings along a welcome dose of fatalistic comedy to the proceedings. And though Radcliffe bears a character description usually afforded to extras on Law & Order, the onetime Harry Potter makes the most of his increasingly ludicrous role. You will believe a corpse can fly – just don't plan on that sight becoming a summer-movie staple.

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