‘Swiss Army Man’ uses many gadgets but does not connect
Directed/written by: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe
“Swiss Army Man” (2016) - In “Cast Away” (2000), Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) found himself stranded on a deserted island. Now, human beings are social creatures, and the interaction with others is a vital need that life took away from Nolan on that isolated place. In order to fill the void, Nolan famously gave a random volleyball the name, Wilson, and it was the only “person” that he talked with on the island. In “Swiss Army Man”, Hank Thompson (Paul Dano) is isolated on an island too, and like Chuck Nolan, he has fallen victim to loneliness, until he spots something on beach. That something is a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe).
Hank – who is unshaven, sunburned and desperate – suddenly discovers another person to converse with, but yes, this individual happens to be dead. From the minds of writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, they conjure up a tale from the point of view of Hank’s hallucinating mind, because Manny (Radcliffe) – a dead man - speaks to him.
Dano is so good at playing off-center characters, and Kwan and Scheinert perfectly cast him here. Dano’s Hank is a disheveled mess who is in dire need of a friend, but after many exchanges with Manny, the audience discovers that – in the real world – acquiring friends was massively problematic for him. He shares stories of past failures, bad family relationships and his inability to engage in conversation with pretty girls, and Hank’s current seclusion is probably not terribly different than his previous life. The script and Dano properly establish the character, and they do garner sympathy for him, but Hank’s eccentricities and repetitive fixations of a mysterious girl riding on a bus make it difficult to emotionally connect with him.
That’s a problem.
Hank, however, does emotionally connect with Manny in two ways. First, Hank’s conversations with him are not one-way. Obviously, a two-way dialogue (even if Hank is hallucinating) provides a much better experience for the audience, but Hank also teaches life lessons to Manny. Although Manny is in his mid-20s, he seems to have no memory of his two and a half decades of existence, and therefore, Hank develops into his mentor. Manny becomes the perfect sounding board while also offering naïve opinions based upon the limited information which Hank provides. The actors nicely play off one another and generate some hilarious, vulnerable and gracious moments.
The friendly chemistry – under odd on-screen circumstances – between the two leads is only topped by the film’s hook: Manny becomes Hank’s Swiss army man to survive the great outdoors. In a host of eye-popping visuals, Manny’s dead body has a surprising array of functions. He can cut thick logs with one karate chop, fire a metal crutch from his mouth (which is used as a grappling hook) and expel an exorbitant amount of flatulence to create a motor for a human jet ski. These images (probably) have never graced movie screens before, and each new discovery offers fantastical wonders for the audience. Although, Kwan and Scheinert “go to the well” too many times with repetitive fart jokes, most of the gadgets emanating from Manny’s multiuse body are the highlights of the film.
While Hank navigates through his sequestration in the wild - with a dead guy who doubles as his best friend - the movie moves towards a few possible directions in the third act. Unfortunately, the film chooses a direction which unnecessarily advances the story another two plot points farther than it needed to go. For the audience, the last act feels manufactured, cheap and too smart for its own good. Worse yet, it feels implausible, and quite frankly, that is vastly difficult to achieve, because we already bought the fact that Hank is best friends with a talking dead person throughout most of the movie. I believe “Swiss Army Man” wanted to deliver some important messages about the human condition, but it just feels like a bungled experiment. I do appreciate the ambition and thought placed into Manny’s character, but looking back 16 years, I invested a lot more emotion into a volleyball that Chuck Nolan accidentally lost in the ocean. (2/4 stars)
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.