‘Swiss Army Man’ (2016) dares to dream, but the reality falls short

by Diego Moreno | 7/21/16 6:00pm

“Swiss Army Man” (2016) has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year from A24, a production company that served as a distributor of critically acclaimed films such as “Spring Breakers” (2012), “Ex Machina” (2015), “Amy” (2015) and “Room” (2015). This latest addition to the A24 family, however, falls well short of A24’s lofty standards.

Shot over a span of 22 days in California, the film features three principal characters. Perhaps the most troublesome is Hank (Paul Dano), who is stranded on a desert island on the brink of suicide. Just as he is about to hang himself, he sees Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. Hank rushes to the rescue but finds Manny unresponsive and seemingly dead.

Just as Hank is about to try to hang himself again, he notices that Manny is releasing a lot of gas, more than a dead body should. As the waves crash into Manny’s body, his gas seemingly works as a motor to propel his body forward. Hank climbs aboard and rides Manny safely to the mainland.

Upon landing, Manny is still largely unresponsive so Hank carries him on his back as the two begin a trek through a forest back to civilization. Once in the wilderness, Manny becomes responsive for the first time but does not know who he is or what the essence of humanity is, causing Hank to explain his perception of society and its norms.

While traveling, Manny sees a picture of Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) on Hank’s phone and becomes enamored with her. Realizing that Manny’s erections serve as a compass, Hank convinces Manny that Manny knows Sarah and that Manny must return to civilization to see her again. Strangely, Hank pretends to be Sarah by putting on a dress and wig, leading to several intimate moments between the two men as they practice for Manny’s supposed reunion with Sarah.

Much of the film’s second act is predicated on didactic moments where Hank and Manny discuss the way the world works. Manny struggles to grasp society’s understood rules such as temperance against saying the first thing that pops into your head and not farting in front of people. Despite Hank’s guidance, Manny shows slight resistance to civilization and questions why they should go back if, “they don’t let you do anything.” While he does not fully comprehend the concepts of society, Manny continues to guide the trek with the motivation of seeing Sarah.

While I respect the film’s writer and director duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Swiss Army Man” leaves much to be desired. The overall concept of the film — to teach someone foreign to the human race what constitutes life within society — is an interesting notion, but the plot’s execution was haphazard and the message simplistic.

With such an intimate cast, I expected to see strong acting performances à la Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson or Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Rather than chemistry between Dano and Radcliffe, the two leads, there was only awkwardness. Radcliffe, who spends the first 30 minutes of the film either unconscious or farting his way across the ocean, never fully realizes the potential of such a perplexing script built around a conceit metaphor of a man who is a real life Swiss Army knife. Rather, we see an accomplished actor reduced to the energy level and cognizance of a zombie.

Dano’s Hank does manage to bring a sizable amount of energy to the film through his vivid explanations about life’s ups and downs, including lamentations on missed opportunities in his own life. That being said, the film feels like 97 minutes of Dano trying to make a really great and well-balanced chicken salad out of nothing but stale mayonnaise.

Even more disappointing is Winstead’s performance, which does not live up to her moving performances in “10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016) and “Smashed” (2012). This is by no means her own doing. In fact, for the first two acts of the film her character appears only as a photo on Hank’s phone. Yet, when she finally does say a few lines in the third act, they are large forgettable and devoid of emotion.

To Kwan and Scheinert’s credit, the film features beautiful shots and masterful editing, which pull the viewer through scenes, acts and flashbacks seamlessly. It is a waste, though, that such great cinematography is used to capture Radcliffe’s farting.

Despite the few highlights, “Swiss Army Man” is plagued by its poor script. As with many conceptual films, these writers appear to have bitten off more than they could chew and the translation from script to screen only highlights the inadequacies. I admire that the “Daniels” dared to dream, but they came up short of a polished finished product.

Rating: 5/10