The thing about comedies is, like any joke, they ultimately comes down to the joke-teller’s sense of humor.
Co-writer/directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan have a really weird sense of humor.
Swiss Army Man opens on Hank (Paul Dano) cast away on a deserted island and about to hang himself, having long-since run out of food. Before stepping off, he sees a bloated corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) has just washed ashore. Hank investigates, thinking he may be alive, and discovers that the corpse is farting. But these are no normal farts — they come in an endless stream, and are powerful enough to propel the corpse across water. Hank rides the corpse across the ocean, but must still get through a vast wilderness to get to civilization. The corpse reveals more and more useful tricks at every turn and eventually begins to speak and keep Hank company. Hank dubs him Manny, the Swiss-army man, and begins to teach him about love, sex and civilization.
The Daniels made exactly the movie they wanted to make. Swiss Army Man is their unadulterated whimsy, and it comes recommended for that reason alone, but it’s hard to identify who specifically will actually enjoy the movie.
Swiss Army Man is completely deadpan. There’s no “I’ve got a bow and arrow” scene here. It starts with Hank riding a corpse like a jetski, and gets progressively more and more ridiculous from there. The music, variations on the song Hank was humming to himself in the noose, Cotton-Eyed Joe and the Jurassic Park theme remains constant throughout, escalating but never budging, like the movie as a whole. Despite taking place in an open world, it’s got a lot in common with a bottle movie. It’s constantly pushing the same envelope even further, building the same pressure on the audience throughout and never releasing. Think Reservoir Dogs, a very literal bottle movie, or the more recent Neon Demon.
This is far and away my favorite way to structure a movie because it’s the only structure that’s truly engrossing throughout, but also one of the most difficult. Sadly, Swiss Army Man breaks the tension with two key left turns where the joke kind of changes, and it may not take many viewers out of the movie, but they both kind of jarred me. The first is when Manny starts talking, since they’ve played through 20 minutes at that point of him just sitting there and it would have matched the humor they’d established to go through the entire movie trying to convince the audience the corpse was about to talk, but then denying it. The second is the late plot-twist leading into the film’s bizarre climax. It feels like these three segments of movie don’t fit together like they should.
The themes, on the other hand, fit together beautifully. Swiss Army Man is an intense meditation on trash and behavior that must be hidden due to social mores. The concept of trash is one of the first things Hank explains to Manny because, despite being days from civilization, they encounter heaping piles of it everywhere. Hank simply says about garbage, “People don’t want it anymore, so they hide it.” Manny astutely observes that this is the same thing people do with corpses and social outcasts like Hank, and Hank tells him to jump off a bridge.
But be it Manny or the literal trash they find in the forest, Hank is constantly making something out of other people’s waste. The opening shots are of boats he’s made out of garbage on the deserted island and sent out along the currents calling for help. In that same scene, his noose breaks and he repairs it with Manny’s belt. Their nights together later in the movie are filled with puppet shows and grand shelters Hank has built entirely out of garbage.
Going deeper, Hank connects this to honesty. Just like trash must be hidden, Hank explains that bodily functions like farts and sexual urges must be hidden, despite everyone having them and despite them being a gigantic part of most of our lives. Our eating habits and sexual preferences are core aspects of who we are, but nobody wants to hear about them, so they’re never talked about, and Hank doesn’t really know how to talk or think about them. His entire character arc revolves around his unwillingness to talk about his private self, or even admit that it exists.
Ultimately, more than any other movie that’s come out in a long time, the appeal of Swiss Army Man comes down to the individual, but it’s got a lot of objective merit. Its themes are a lot to chew on, and its unique brand of comedy is a breath of fresh air. With Central Intelligence a month old, standard brain-dead shock comedy Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates the only other mature comedy in theaters and Paul Feig bringing his profoundly awful laugh-at-how-ugly-my-actresses-are-but-also-feminism brand of shit to next week’s Ghostbusters remake, Swiss Army Man isn’t just the funniest thing out right now, it’s the only funny thing out right now.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.