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Swiss Army Man
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by Jay Seaver

"Tries a bit of everything and most of it is pretty useful."
4 stars

There is no denying that "Swiss Army Man" is a memorable movie: It's creative, energetic, and full of cleverness and whimsy. It's got the best work some members of the cast have ever done. The question, then, is whether there's a great movie in total when the clock starts winding down and it's time to decide what all that unquestionably appealing material is leading to. That's perhaps a little less brilliant, but it doesn't squander the goodwill that the unique bulk of the film has earned.

It opens with Hank (Paul Dano), alone on a Pacific island after some unspecified disaster, just about to end it all as much out of boredom as despair. Seeing that a person has washed up on shore, he changes his mind, only to find that the man is dead. That doesn't stop him, though, and he starts treating the corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) as a companion, even if the bacteria in its gut are making it unusually flatulent. On the other hand, that seems to be the source of some incredible abilities that might help Hank get off his island, even before "Manny" starts talking.

We know how movies like this work; the peculiar companion that appears when Hank is at the literal end of his rope is probably not entirely real, but a way for Hank to stay sane and focused until rescue/escape. For a while, viewers are probably filing every weird thing that Manny's multifunctional body does, from spewing water out of his mouth to using the gassy buildup for propulsion, either trying to figure out what's really going on or expecting a flashback montage that shows how Hank was managing it himself. That filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert ultimately get the audience to treat this as unimportant is a testament to their skills; the imagery is delightful and fantastical on its own, and what Hank and Manny are doing is interesting and fast-moving enough that the reasons behind it aren't so important.

Still, the decision to make Manny a blank slate is at the heart of why so much of the movie works. It's funny, obviously; Radcliffe gets a lot of chances to ask seemingly-obvious questions and "Daniels" (as the directors are credited) do elaborate things to educate him. Take Manny at face value, and it's an interesting take on the fantasy material. Assume that Hank is basically talking to himself, though, and it becomes fascinating, a troubled man forcing himself to challenge the way he looks at life, reconstructing his priorities and questioning his decisions, finding the ways in which he and the world at large maybe do not fit each other.

It goes down easy, though, in large part because Paul Dano has seldom been more enjoyable on-screen than he is here. Dano's Hank has to echo the audience in being freaked out by Manny's weird half-life but also able to roll with it as it goes on, investing the character with an infectious enthusiasm that he uses to both cover and elaborate on how Hank was clearly troubled before being marooned. Dano is often cast in roles where he's meant to be aloof or obnoxious, but here he manages to make Hank both ingratiating and unstable without being an object of pity.

Radcliffe, meanwhile, gets one of those "memorable by being relatively undemonstrative" roles, spending a lot of scenes flopped down, doing the least movement he can get away with and thus giving Manny a strained funny voice, to the point where when he needs to enunciate a little better to get something across, the film makes a point of saying it doesn't go unnoticed. It the sort of thing that could easily go wrong, though, making Manny just a Saturday Night Live novelty character, but Radcliffe does a very nice job of making Manny come together as a new person, childlike (despite some ribald jokes) without being foolish.

Attentive viewers will note that the lady on the lock screen of Hank's rapidly draining phone is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and, no, she's not just letting her likeness be used as a favor to a friend, and circling back around to the world outside Hank's and Manny's isolation is where Swiss Army Man maybe stumbles a little. Kwan & Scheinert are clearly aware that other people don't exist just for how they relate to Hank, but don't have room to explore exactly what all that means or how this journey may have changed, but not necessarily fixed, some of his issues.

But then, I didn't exactly want the film dragged out very far past the visually striking bits either, which is kind of a pickle. "Swiss Army Man" is certainly more than a fun hook with some great imagery - though what makes it unique is delightfully creative - but not quite the full exploration of its ideas that would make its entirety on the same level as its best moments.

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originally posted: 07/01/16 11:34:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  24-Jun-2016 (R)
  DVD: 04-Oct-2016

UK
  N/A

Australia
  24-Jun-2016
  DVD: 04-Oct-2016




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