Fresh Air

Swiss Army Man is a surprisingly refreshing flatulent corpse comedy

Wednesday June 29, 2016 04:00 am EDT

One can only imagine how filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert pitched the raunchy lyricism of Swiss Army Man: "It's like Cast Away, only instead of a volley ball, Tom Hanks' best friend is a dead guy!"

More specifically, Paul Dano plays Hank Thompson, who we meet on a tiny island, stranded and suicidal. He's overjoyed to discover another person wash ashore, until he realizes the newcomer (Daniel Radcliffe) is a corpse. But Hank gradually discovers this particular corpse can be a multi-tool for survival: as canteen, as compass, even as floatation device, with explosive flatulence as a means of propulsion. Hence the title Swiss Army Man.

With wholehearted abandon, the film indulges the kind of fart and boner jokes of a Seth Rogen movie. But when the body, called Manny, reveals the power of speech, Swiss Army Man embraces an oddly meditative side. Manny badgers Hank with questions about bodily functions, romance, and what it means to be alive, which the film addresses with utter sincerity. The former Harry Potter, Radcliffe adapts a raspy American accent, the physicality of a limp rag doll, and the guileless curiosity of a toddler ... or maybe the Frankenstein monster.

Perhaps the most perverse thing about Swiss Army Man is how it commits to its ideas about love and friendship no less than its gross-out jokes. Hank shows skill at using trash and branches to build simulations of the civilized world, "Gilligan's Island"-style, to show Manny what it's like to ride a bus or go on a date. Dano persistently brings a vulnerability and openness to the situation, no matter how many preposterous turns it takes, that holds Swiss Army Man together.

For most of its running time, Swiss Army Man unfolds as an effective two-hander, alternating between elaborate visual comedy and bittersweet conversations. The last act breaks this delicate balance, so Swiss Army Man, disappointingly, doesn't quite stick the landing. If it finds an audience — perhaps viewers who equally love Spike Jonze and Mel Brooks — it could see an enormous cult following around it. At the very least, it's refreshing to see a de facto zombie movie with something new to say.

Swiss Army Man. ★★★☆☆ Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Stars Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe. Rated R. Now playing. At area theaters.

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