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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
(SPOILERS) Alexander Salkind (alongside son Ilya) inhabited not dissimilar territory to the more prolific Dino De Laurentis, in that his idea of manufacturing a huge blockbuster appeared to be throwing money at it while being stingy with, or failing to appreciate, talent where it counted. Failing to understand the essential ingredients for a quality movie, basically, something various Hollywood moguls of the ‘80s would inherit. Santa Claus: The Movie arrived in the wake of his previously colon-ed big hit, Superman: The Movie, the producer apparently operating under the delusion that flying effects and :The Movie in the title would induce audiences to part with their cash, as if they awarded Saint Nick a must-see superhero mantle. The only surprise was that his final cinematic effort, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, wasn’t similarly sold, but maybe he’d learned his lesson by then. Or maybe not, given the behind-camera talent he failed to secure.

On a long enough timeline, the survival of everyone drops to zero.

Fight Club (1999)
(SPOILERS) Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.

When primal forces of nature tell you to do something, the prudent thing is not to quibble over details.

Field of Dreams (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s a near-Frank Darabont quality to Phil Alden Robinson producing such a beloved feature and then subsequently offering not all that much of note. But Darabont, at least, was in the same ballpark as The Shawshank Redemption with The Green MileSneakers is good fun, The Sum of All Our Fears was a decent-sized success, but nothing since has come close to his sophomore directorial effort in terms of quality. You might put that down to the source material, WP Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, but the captivating magical-realist balance hit by Field of Dreams is a deceptively difficult one to strike, and the biggest compliment you can play Robinson is that he makes it look easy.

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…