The best films master the art of holding your attention and your heart for every single second of screen-time. "Swiss Army Man" is one such film, but like the titular multipurpose corpse, it does so much more. It holds every fiber of your being in ways you cannot fathom. That is, if you completely give yourself over to its delightfully awkward embrace. Skeptics may not be as well-suited for this film as other more adventurous viewers, but what makes "Swiss Army Man" so special is that it opens its arms to all walks of life, asking audiences not just to become curious spectators but active participants in its wacky-yet-thoughtful shenanigans. I confess that my expectations for this film were pretty overhyped, but believe me when I say that all of them were met and, in some cases, even exceeded. There simply aren't enough adjectives to describe it, though I wouldn't be surprised if those who go on to love this film as much as I did will be inspired to make up their own.
On the verge of suicide after being stranded on a small island, Hank (Paul Dano) sees a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on the shore. After discovering that the corpse is flatulent enough to propel itself through the water, Hank rides it like a jet ski until he reaches the mainland. Soon after this, the corpse, whom Hank names Manny, starts talking to him. Manny has forgotten everything about his past life, so it's up to Hank to teach him all that the world has to offer. Manny also has a remarkable grab-bag of abilities, such as producing drinkable water out of his mouth and a boner that acts as a compass. As Hank uses Manny's odd superpowers to help him get back home, the two form an inseparable bond, passing the time through singing, dancing, therapeutic conversation and emotional liberation.
Co-directors (and writers) Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (billed as Daniels) make the most out of this short film concept for their first-ever feature. At 95 minutes, which all boil down to two guys talking and playing in the woods (a concept not too far off from "My Dinner with Andre" or "Waiting for Godot"), "Swiss Army Man" could have easily been too thinly painted on the filmmakers' funky canvas. Turns out that the Daniels have more than enough ideas and gags to propel Hank and Manny's gassy odyssey forward without it ever feeling repetitious. Hank's ongoing discovery of Manny's litany of powers also keeps the picture dynamic, and the Daniels waste not a single breath in their effort to make this buddy comedy as endearing as it is slightly disturbing.
A buddy comedy is not all that "Swiss Army Man" is. Much like Hank's shoddy sets made out of branches and trash, which he uses to explain the world to the childlike Manny, the film is an amalgamation of elements from fantasy, surreal, dramatic, and even musical films, all of which are repurposed by the Daniels to achieve the film's beautifully bizarre tone. It's as much a testament to mankind's instinct to make something pretty out of something used as the film's recurrent image of repurposed garbage. It seems the Daniels have taken a page out of George Miller's book from "Mad Max: Fury Road," in which the denizens of the desert wasteland dig up all sorts of junk and scrap iron to create rock-n-roll gas guzzlers and war rigs.
The uplifting, melancholic score by Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull and Robert McDowell is also a wonderful concoction of influences. Powered by airy voices and lively percussion, the music is something of a cross between indie folk, the ambience of Peter Gabriel's score for "The Last Temptation of Christ," and the woodland spirit of Alexandre Desplat's score for "Moonrise Kingdom." One could be easily enraptured by the film with only the music to accompany its gorgeous visuals, but the banter between Dano and Radcliffe would be sorely missed, since "Swiss Army Man" relies so heavily on the interplay of its leads.
Dano is perfectly comfortable in the role of Hank, having played plenty of awkward, lonesome young men since his breakout performance in "Little Miss Sunshine." Not to say that his work here is serviceable; Dano truly owns the part, portraying Hank as man of both many quirks and many faults. Radcliffe has by far the most difficult task here. Other than making sure we don't see him inhale and exhale, how exactly does one play a talking corpse that learns about life all over again in a short amount of time? It's difficult to explain how Radcliffe does this beyond his toddler-esque inflections and lazy-eyed gazes, but his performance is anything but a stunt to distance himself from his image as Harry Potter. The two play off each other as a sort of reverse Abbott and Costello; Hank is the straight man but with eccentric delivery, while Manny is the goofy one but with deadpan delivery. They're simply fantastic together.
Roger Ebert argued in his review for "Weekend at Bernie's" (another buddy comedy featuring a corpse) that films with dead bodies are rarely funny. If only we could bring him back, as Hank does with Manny, to see this, for "Swiss Army Man" is such a rarity; a cinematic miracle that gives the term "artsy-fartsy" a whole new meaning. It's an outrageously silly and extraordinarily moving love letter to everyone who has ever felt like they do not belong in this world, and inspires us to break free from any shame or self-doubt, all while having a good laugh at ourselves and our most unflattering bodily functions. It is a film to be cherished, championed and celebrated.