J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sundance ’16: Swiss Army Man

It was the year of the fart joke at this year’s Sundance and the stinkiest ones came from Daniel Radcliffe. That is because he finally played the role he and every other actor was born to play: a gaseous corpse. It is a somewhat passive part, but he has more dialogue than you might expect in the Daniels’ Swiss Army Man, which screens today as the winner of the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Seriously, that’s not a joke.

Hank is a castaway on the brink of suicide. We never really understand how he got there, but the truth is, this discouraging turn of events is not that worse than his normally crummy life. Just as he is about to end it all, he sees a body wash up on shore. Unfortunately, the body really is a body, but in his addled state, Hank starts talking to the deceased, whom he comes to know as “Manny.”

Despite his lifeless state, Manny is a handy dude to have around. There is plenty of fresh water to be squeezed out of his gut and his voluminous gas allows him to power through the water like a motorboat. In fact, he will fart Hank to within reach of civilization. As the castaway talks to his lifeless companion, Manny starts to answer back. Is it all in Hank’s sun-baked head? Yes probably, but Manny still might be able to help him work through his issues, just by being such a good listener.

Swiss Army is sort of a love-it-or-hate-it film, yet a handful of us still managed to find ourselves /mixed on it. On some level, you have to respect the tandem known as “The Daniels” (a.k.a. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert) for their willingness to follow their weird scatalogical vision through to its logical extremes (especially if you happen to be a Sundance juror). Nevertheless, as the film stands, it is an uneasy mix of slapstick and sentiment. Frankly, the things get wildly overwrought in the third act—at which points the Daniels only have their tongues partly embedded in their cheeks. That heartstring tugging just feels cheap and unearned.

Still, you have to marvel at Paul Dano’s commitment to the often tasteless material. As Hank, the Daniels leave him out there on a limb, but he manages to create a somewhat poignant sad clown persona. Although Manny has more to do than most corpses, Radcliffe still demonstrates a good sense of humor (and a fierce determination to overcome his Harry Potter image) by taking on the rather stiff role. All things considered, their chemistry together isn’t that bad.

Although Swiss Army sounds deliriously unhinged, it sort of tries to have it both ways, which is a mistake. Yet, a film with this many big set piece sequences built around fart gags deserves some sort of acknowledgement. Evidently, that would be the directors’ award. If you are still intrigued, then judge for yourself when Swiss Army Man screens tonight (1/31) in Park City, as an award-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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