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Two Drink Minimum: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s ‘Swiss Army Man’

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Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages writer Jacob Oller.

Swiss Army Man is much more than a farting corpse movie, but it’s best when it focuses on the dead Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) that shipwrecked protagonist Hank (Paul Dano) finds washed ashore on a desert island. That the whispery hint of companionship is enough to encourage the cripplingly shy Hank to survive should be noted and filed away. The real show is Manny’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of beneficial (and biological) tricks, including the ability to jet ski across the ocean driven by his dead, muscle-relaxed gas.

In a movie that opens with multiple suicide attempts, the propulsionary flatulence of a dead body is the least vulgar element. The vulgarity is prevalent and often as adolescent as a comedy featuring man-children that learn to overcome their own stunted development, but Swiss Army Man’s humor is colored with affection that sandpapers and heavily coats its pathetic core. The film almost literally puts on rose-colored glasses, tinting the picture with angelic back-lighting and slow motion at decidedly unangelic moments. It works because its adolescence is slowly chipped away, reconfigured and eventually empowered through the eyes of an innocent.

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Teaching an innocent the ways of our world has come in the forms of aliens, artificial intelligence and (all too often) human foreigners. And the concept remains affecting through the worldview of a magical zombie. The unexpected embrace of life’s taboos and universal impolitenesses creates comedy and clarity. Farts are funny and everyone does it. And Swiss Army Man cites one book in its runtime (two if you count the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition): Tarō Gomi’s Everybody Poops.

The film embraces humanity in all its disgusting, shameful glory which allows it to revel in the nasty madness with its dignity more than intact. Thanks to the convincing, nuanced relationship formed by Dano and Radcliffe (mostly Radcliffe), Swiss Army Man taps into something beautiful and romantic. The joys of showing someone your world in a loving rather than pedantic way is the kind of emotional tightrope act that, in some ways, makes Swiss Army Man the most audacious love story since Spike Jonze’s Her.

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Radcliffe’s empathetic corpse is the film’s hidden ace. His limp, flopping good-naturedness (not a euphemism) and cockeyed grimace bolster his disarming and inquisitive verve like an even better, more lovable Frankenstein’s Monster from Monster Squad. Through his eyes, viewers may understand Dano’s character as a pathetic, temperamental and thin-skinned recluse whose loneliness and social anxiety are deeply buried while his compassion for life is just below the surface.

As the two castaways befriend one another through a mixture of disbelief and necessity, the story takes on conventional emotions through some decidedly unconventional means. To convince himself that life is worth fighting for, Hank must prove to himself that love is attainable. In the course of doing this, Manny pops a semi-sentient postmortem priapism. Why this isn’t a PG-13 movie, I’ll never know.

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The only thing wrong with this gorgeously shot, singularly crafted film is its ending. And given the premise of Swiss Army Man, this was always going to be a challenge. For all the character growth and weirdness with a purpose, writers-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert opt for a climax of intense reality shock. While one can understand that the idea could’ve been funny in a much darker and sadder film, the emotions tapped by the pair in the film’s first hour deserve more time and embrasure of the insanity rather than squeamish sentimentality. Though Swiss Army Man fizzles towards the end, the first two acts (and the film’s mere existence) are easily enough to warrant a watch. Sing along with a corpse and come out the other side appreciating the bus ride home.

From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.

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