By: Daniel Reynolds
The comedian Louis CK, whose standup and TV work grapples with no less than the meaning of life, has an affinity for fart jokes. He once said: “You don’t have to be smart to laugh at farts, but you have to be stupid not to.” It’s a philosophy the new film Swiss Army Man, from first-time feature film directors Daniels, takes to heart. It opens with a man trapped on a deserted island, in the process of hanging himself, just as he finds a bloated corpse with, hmm, powers? The corpse begins to let loose great, powerful rippling farts. It’s hard not to laugh. This is how the man gets off the island. And then the journey — of man and corpse — really begins.
The man is Hank Thompson, a bedraggled and off-kilter Paul Dano, at the end of his rope (metaphorically, if not literally). There’s no real explanation as to how he ended up on that initial comically small island, with a cooler and other bits of garbage. (He sends a juice box out to sea with a “help me” message on it.) Hank admits later he ran away. From what? The film seeks to discover this as both we and his dead partner do. Said partner’s name is Manny (get it?), and he’s played by none other than Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. (This last bit added every time Radcliffe pops up in a film, as if to show surprise he can do other things, too.) Looking more pallid than usual, Radcliffe convincingly plays dead for long stretches of the film. In effect, he’s a human Wilson a la Castaway, a put-upon body onto which Hank can project his troubles. But while that film keeps Wilson mute, an unvarying sounding board for all of Tom Hanks’ emotions, Manny gradually begins to act up. And, as the title implies, he proves to be quite useful for survival.
So yes, setting aside the recurring flatulence, this is when Swiss Army Man starts to get weird. As conceived by Daniels — that’s Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, by the way — Manny becomes a tool. Invoking the spirit of Michel Gondry (all three began as music video directors), Daniels have themselves some fun with this concept. At times Manny is a jet ski, a fire starter, a wood-chopper, a source of water, and more. But centrally, and most importantly, Manny is a friend. For Dano’s Hank, imbued with a loneliness that extends beyond geographical dislocation, this is what he needs most. If nothing else, Hank wants someone to which he can talk, relate and reveal. Setting aside the surreal image of this guy emoting to a (clearly dead) Daniel Radcliffe, it’s an oddly powerful concept. Daniels uses the absurdity to mine Hank’s aimless and sad history. He expected a life to flash before his eyes while hanging in that opening scene, but saw nothing. He’s got issues with his parents, one of whom died when he was younger. There’s also something about a girl, her picture glimpsed on the screen of Hank’s dying phone. And, oh yeah, despite escaping that island in the opening sequence, he still ends up very much lost in the woods.
This is how we end up with a film that begins on a fart joke, but finds some semblance of meaning along the way. It’s rare to find a film that can balance, say, a boner joke with a journey of self (and literal) discovery, but Swiss Army Man goes there. It has boner jokes that Seth Rogen wishes he could have made; these are jokes of salvation. For as Hank figures his way out of the forest, grappling with his insecurity, neurosis and a fear of death, Manny also learns what it means to be alive. He begins the film as a gassy baby, before turning to more teen-aged concerns like hormonal attraction and the mechanics of sex, and eventually — with patently ridiculous and yet somehow moving courtship scenes involving just him and Hank — settles on more mature musings around romance and love. Manny takes turns as Hank’s lost innocence, his inner voice, and his emotional baggage. Hank wants to save him, but really he’s trying to navigate saving himself. Or, more simply: Hank wants to prove he himself is worth saving.
This is where things get more complicated. The ending of Swiss Army Man, after it moves past some thoroughly inspiring bits of survival tactics and spiritual problem-solving, goes further than I expected and unravels the film’s heretofore inspired execution. It starts to become a journey to find oneself at the expense, somewhat, of others. Hank is a strange guy, in ways that are not so easy to dismiss. It’s not uncommon to feel alone, or unloved, or to have issues with your dad. But that thing with the girl (who turns up later as Mary Elizabeth Winstead) amounts to something more along the lines of idle obsession. It goes from being weird, to making it weird. Now, I know (believe me, I know) what it feels like to stare into a phone screen at a picture of a girl while imagining the life you could or would have; I also know it is deeply unhealthy. The self-worth has to come from you and you alone, man.
Then again, maybe now I’m projecting on an inanimate object, too. Or perhaps I’m just stopping myself, too scared to say anything more personal. Therein lies the clever rub of Swiss Army Man. The partnership of Hank and Manny is affecting at first because of its bizarre necessity, and then because of something deeper. As Manny unveils newer (and more absurd) ways to help, so too does Hank bravely reveal, and own up to, more of himself and the underlying layers that force him to face his largest fears and embarrassments. When it’s acknowledged that Manny himself may have been a Hank who didn’t make it, there’s a poignancy there. One of these two can still set their lives right.
And, oh yeah, then it ends on a fart joke. Of course now, it’s more than a joke, and it moves beyond the binary of being smart or stupid. This time, it’s profound.