Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Daniels' -- Kwan & Scheinert -- SWISS ARMY MAN: great title, problematic movie

If you value originality above all else, SWISS ARMY MAN, might just be your cup of poop, piss or regurgitated liquids. Yes, it's gross, all right, and I suspect it wins hands-down the current movie record for the near-constant use of farting. But at least, unlike so many of those would-be comedies meant for the eight-year-old minds of stunted adults, the farts here are, yep, original. They're also amazing and usually amusing -- used as they are for bizarre plot devices, visual effects and finally as an all-encompassing symbol of what civilized society deems crass.

Beginning with its spot-on title -- yes, one of our two "heroes" is very much like that famous uber-functional knife with which many of us grew up: packed with so many pull-outs it seemed an all-purpose life-saver -- the movie is clever and shocking but also very astute psychologically and cinematically. As written and directed by a pair of first-time/full-length filmmakers -- Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert -- who bill themselves as "Daniels" (as in "a film by Daniels"), Swiss Army Man was said to be the strangest movie ever to screen at Sundance. Now that we've seen it, TrustMovies feels it's safe to say that it may also be the strangest ever to screen in a mainstream movie house. (Those are the filmmakers, above, with Mr. Kwan shown center, Mr. Scheinert, center, right, flanked by stars Paul Dano, right, Daniel Radcliffe center, left, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, left.)

The story here, as you may have by now heard, involves a young man named Hank (Mr. Dano) somehow stranded on an island in the middle of the sea who, having given up on any rescue, is about to "off" himself when he notices a body (Mr. Radcliff's) that seems to have washed up onshore. From there, perhaps the most bizarre of buddy movies begins to unfold.

Where and how the tale maneuvers is so strange and unsettling; funny, sad and unnerving; occasionally believable but more often the stuff of fantasy that you will find yourself trying to figure out just what the filmmaker' intentions really are. Is this a tale of desperation so severe and encompassing that the desperate man will of course invent/imagine whatever he must in order to survive? Sure looks that way.

But as the movie moves forward, there seems to be more at stake here. What kind of a fellow is our Hank? And is Manny (the name Hank gives to that washed-up body) entirely a whole-cloth creation of Hank's? What transpires includes everything from sex education to cross-dressing to the appearance of some very large and obstinate hard-ons from Manny, brought on by an old girlie magazine and a photo of Ms Winstead that occasionally appears on a cell phone.

How all this is possible on an island in the middle of the sea is one of the question that arise, as our buddies grow closer, while managing to avoid anything sexual between them. (Although an apology of sorts, using that old stand-by "I was really drunk last night!", does surface along the way.)

Above all else, it's the relationship between these two young men that matters most, except that the relationship is completely one-sided and serves mainly to build what we finally learn about Hank's character -- who he actually is and what has really happened. To this end, Mr. Dano proves yet again to be the sort of remarkable young actor who can handle whatever role comes his way. (And this may be the strangest and most difficult he'll ever have.)

For his part, Mr. Radcliffe seems bent on doing all in his power to counteract his Harry Potter image, and he's doing a fine job of it. From diverse Broadway roles to the most oddball movies (and they don't get more oddball than this), he is stretching himself and proving quite adept at the stretch. If here, he must play the "best pal" role as it has never been played before, he gives it his all -- which is more than enough.

In the home stretch, however, it must be said that the movie does fall apart (and then falls apart all over again). Things have been withheld from us that make all the difference, and while this might be perfectly OK for some movies, here it rather wrecks things. I cannot elaborate because that would result in a major spoiler. Suffice it to say that, of all things, the Daniels appear to want to offer up something as mainstream as "feel-good" -- after all they've done to work around that usual bill of fare. So Swiss Army Man becomes a movie by two very smart guys who don't quite know when to stop and consequently get a little too close to what you might call "smarty pants."

Their movie, distributed by A24 and running 95 minutes, opened in New York and Los Angeles over the past weekend, and hits a lot of other cities this week. On Friday, July 1, it opens here South Florida all over the place -- from Regal's Shadowood, Cypress Creek and Sawgrass to AMC's Aventura and Sunset Place, Muvico's Broward and Parisian, Delray's Frank Theaters Cinebowl, Fort Lauderdale's Classic Gateway, Coconut Grove's Cinepolis USA, and Miami's O Cinema Wynwood. Elsewhere? Absolutely. Click here and all the theaters near you should pop right up....

The photo of the actors and filmmakers, 
second from top, is by Jeff Vespa
courtesy of Getty Images.

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