What the Fart…?
DIRECTED BY DAN KWAN AND DANIEL SCHEINERT/2016
As awful as this year has been so far, and however worse it just might get, 2016 will, from now on, also be remembered as the year Swiss Army Man came out.
A deliberate anomaly of a movie if there ever was one, Swiss Army Man is all about perverting societal norms and conventional wisdoms in regard to both personal hygiene/bodily functions, and what we expect in entertainment. Touted as a feature-length fart joke (which it is), the film is, beyond all of that, an exceptional appropriation of magical realism wrapped up in some newfangled form of humanist modernism. Yes, we humans are disgusting creatures, with our smelly gas, poop, and eventual decay of death. But are we disgusting, really? Aren’t the bodily functions that everyone has in common ultimately a unifying quality? If not, why not? This is one of the oddly innocent questions that filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“A Film by the Daniels”) who also wrote the movie, seem to be asking.
The film opens with Paul Dano, apparently stranded on a deserted island for quite some time, bored to the point of suicide. But, just as he’s about to hang himself, someone else arrives on the island. A miracle, it’s Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe!
Only trouble is, he’s dead. A disappointment, to be sure. But this nameless corpse does show signs of life, starting with some most impressive explosive farts. Some real whizzpoppers, as the BFG would say. In fact, this dead guy’s seemingly endless source of propulsive gas-blasting makes for a fine makeshift outboard motor! Could Dano’s new dead friend be his ticket back to civilization?
Eh, not really. But as far as farting corpses go, he’s awfully good company. As Dano’s character takes to dragging him around the island into areas of shelter, an all too strange bonding occurs: Radcliffe’s character (dubbed “Manny”) becomes responsive, eventually speaking. He remembers nothing, a truly blank slate. No identity, no backstory, no knowledge that it’s bad manners to fart around others. Not even knowledge of manners, period.
Yet, it’s not all wide-eyed wonder. Societal norms are deconstructed, just by virtue of being plowed through in rapid succession. It’s all hyper-quirky fun; accomplished, standard quality filmmaking in the service of unconventional ideas and story. For good measure, Kwan and Scheinert make a silly mockery of several world religions, most notably Christianity. A Bible becomes a homemade version of “Everybody Poops”; Manny’s resurrection” can be read as profoundly subversive.
While I’m hesitant to go on record claiming that Swiss Army Man is perhaps the crowning hipster movie to date, that’s basically the description I blurted out when asked about it. The term “hipster” is far too loaded and polymorphous , yet this does seem like the movie that Adam Driver’s character in While We’re Young would’ve eaten up. They love outside the system, make things, and bask in the rawness of their humanity. Everything is questioned, but positivity must triumph melancholy.
Through it all, the film remains special. It may be a tad too proud, a bit too smugly self aware, and therefore annoying at times. But it’s spark cannot be denied. I have a theory that Daniel Radcliffe opted to be in Swiss Army Man so that from now on, there’s something else that interviewers have to ask him about other than Harry Potter. Is the movie great? Not entirely. Is it tolerable? Mostly. Is it funny? Sure. Most of all, whatever the case, it will be remembered.