Skip to main content

I used to be dead, but then he brought me back to life.

Swiss Army Man
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Sometimes I’ll finish watching a movie entirely bewildered by the praise it somehow merited. Spring Breakers was one notable case. Swiss Army Man is another. I’ll readily admit that music video turned feature directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan are incredibly inventive and talented – as writers not so much – and that Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as a corpse shows range I never knew he had (I mean that both ironically and seriously).  Otherwise, the experience felt like being harangued by a blowhard hipster for 90 minutes, one who thinks he has something desperately, insightfully deep to say but is actually running on empty after five. It isn’t even all that appealing if you love fart jokes: any given Austin Powers is far more flatulently fulfilling.


I was tempted to label Swiss Army Man a one-joke movie, so impressed with its own single-plane weirdness that it irons itself out into something not really very weird or compelling at all. Which would be unfair to its serious undertones. Yet those serious undertones in no way retrospectively justify the banality of having to endure Paul Dano (as Hank Thompson), never the most endearing of performers (some would say punchable, but let’s not be too hasty), effectively talking to himself for – yes, I’ll mention how long this lasts again – 90 minutes. And mostly about farting and masturbation. Swiss Army Man’s a movie consumed with bodily functions and the eccentric (imagined) ability of Radcliffe’s cadaver (“Manny”) to come to Hank’s rescue at the unlikeliest moments, until it’s not.


Then – much, much too late – it becomes a movie refocussing on the suicidal circumstances in which we first met Hank, mentally ill and obsessed with a young mother in his neighbourhood (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She is understandably aghast when he shows up in her backyard and his secret is revealed (this sequence also involves an erection gag in front of her daughter, always a great source of hilarity). Winstead’s performance is so tonally sensitive and insightful to Hank’s warped reality, I was very nearly willing to flip into seeing the picture in a retrospectively more rewarding light. Instead, we quickly revert to an “objective” scene in which Manny speeds off on a new fart-powered journey (as Winstead observes, “What the fuck?”)


There were clues from the beginning – besides the talking corpse, and a genuinely funny moment where Hank discovers to his amazement that he can use Manny as a flatulence-powered speedboat – that something was amiss, in that somehow, he has apparently been marooned on a desert island but his mobile phone battery hasn’t run out (even turning it off, it would eventually drain of power). But to engage with the reveal is to credit the preceding material, which plays like a fourteen-year-old’s idea of existential angst. There’s no profundity to Hank’s ruminations on life, sex, love and death, interspersed with moments of squirrel murder via Manny’s bazooka mouth or scaring off a rampaging bear by setting himself alight.


The directors have gone to great lengths and abundantly creative effort to bring to life Hank’s fantasy world, composed of litter and forest debris, but the substance is consistently tiresome. No, I didn’t find Hank’s self-delusional, make-believe relationship with Manny affecting, moving, insightful or joyous. I found it irksome and tedious. I’ve seen reviews comparing the directors’ style to Michel Gondry’s, which is actually a good call; working with others’ scripts, Gondry’s work has been sometimes extraordinary. Playing in his own self-penned sandbox, he has been consistently insufferable.


So Dano is Dano, but Radcliffe’s a different matter. For the first time that I can recall – certainly in terms of his transition as an adult actor – I wasn’t conscious of Radcliffe doing his over-delivered, over-eager Radcliffe thing. Perhaps it’s the voice, perhaps it’s just good direction, but he’s a world away from Now You See Me 2 here, suggesting there may be hope for the ex-Potter yet.


I’d sooner rewatch Weekend at Bernie’s any day than Swiss Army Man again. At least that picture had no pretensions to depth (on the other hand, Mr Profound himself, Shane Carruth, must have seen something in it, since he cameos as a coroner). The score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell is magnificently uplifting, and Larkin Seiple’s cinematography is similarly vibrant and inventive, but to no avail. If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you might undergo a Dano double bill with this and Ruby Sparks, another picture indulging his apparent obsession with updating crummy ‘80s Andrew McCarthy movies via an indie twist (that one being Mannequin). Although, Ruby Sparks is actually quite watchable; it’s the Dano factor that will have you squirming.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

It could have been an accident. He decided to sip a surreptitious sup and slipped. Splash!

4.10 A Surfeit of H20
A great episode title (definitely one of the series’ top ten) with a storyline boasting all the necessary ingredients (strange deaths in a small village, eccentric supporting characters, Emma even utters the immortal “You diabolical mastermind, you!”), yet A Surfeit of H20 is unable to quite pull itself above the run of the mill.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.