“On a scale from one to zero, are you happy?”
Life is ridiculous and gross and sad and it ends. These are facts. Sometimes we seek out movies (or other forms of entertainment) for the way they distract us from these, and other, facts. We go to see true love win out, to see superheroes defy all limits of the physical world to pull off spectacular feats of courage, to see monsters slain and evildoers justly served.
Populist art that dares deal with the darker (and sometimes darkest) strains of this existence are a rarer breed. It requires both a tonal tightrope-walk, and the fortitude of vision to push something that might drive general audiences to run screaming from the theater in despair and dismay into the marketplace.
Not many films pull it off. Swiss Army Man does. It’s a necrophiliac-ish comedy about how death and loneliness are birthrights of the entire human race, spun around perhaps the single most prolonged and detailed fart joke in cinematic history.
“I love you!”
“No you fucking don’t.”
Swiss Army Man, written and directed by the filmmaking collaborative Daniels (Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Kwan) opens with Hank (Paul Dano) at the end of his rope. I’m not speaking poetically, the guy has a rope tied around his neck and is about to take the short fall/sudden stop express. Hank’s been stranded on a tiny desert island and starvation/dehydration/general ennui (“I’M SO BORED!” he writes on one seabound message) have driven him to the point of no return. But just as Hank is about to take that last step, a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the beach.
Hank names the corpse “Manny”. Manny turns out to have magic farts, the gas built up in excess in the decomposing body. Hank rides Manny’s corpse back to the mainland, washing up on the shores of a forest. Miles removed from civilization, Hank finds numerous purposes for Manny’s body and flatulence, such as the dead man’s boner acting as a compass guiding them back home.
Yes, this is a real movie.
This would be interesting for maybe a fifteen/twenty minute short, but the film kicks into something special when “Manny” ‘wakes up’, so to speak. While still immobile and rigor mortis’d, the corpse begins to speak. Having forgotten his previous existence, Manny needs to be re-taught what life is, what the world is like. While the Daniels mine hysterical laughs out of this dynamic, there are darker realities underpinning most everything that Hank shares with his new friend.
“You can tell them anything if you just make it funny, make it rhyme.”
In his terrific review, Devin Faraci compared Swiss Army Man to the work of Kurt Vonnegut, and he’s not wrong. Vonnegut was the kind of writer who put his most anguished screeds side-by-side with his biggest laugh-lines. In works like Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut would shred the most commonly held conceptions of polite society on one page, and on another hold court on the misery and cruelty that defined much of what he saw day-to-day, and in between would be a sketch of a butthole.
Swiss Army Man is a 97 minute long fart joke, but the goofiness (magnified by the Daniels’ candy-colored palette, the almost-chemically-perfect chemistry between Dano and Radcliffe, and the gleefully lo-fi FX of this low-budget film) is used as a cover to better allow the Daniels to discuss their more melancholy concerns.
It turns out Hank was in a bad way even before he got to that island, and the nearer he and Manny get to civilization, the more his own pain becomes pronounced and unavoidable. Hank is fucked up, deeply, a man choking on his need for something resembling love and human connection. Manny asks question after question, getting closer and closer to the despair that has come to define Hank. Here, we learn, is a man who hides himself away from the world he covets, desperately hoping that someone, anyone, will see all that he has to offer and will extend a hand to welcome and embrace him.
There are numerous ways to get at this same emotional/internal struggle. Dramatizing the way that introverts reach out to and recoil from the world at large has been a part of artistic expression since artists learned to express themselves, and people are rightfully sick of stories about all the self-styled Holden Caulfields drowning in their self-pity. But by crafting a film that is so bizarre on its surface, that is so attention-grabbingly nuts and filled with laughter and stunning visuals, the Daniels have found a way to blow past your defenses. Like a great magician, the pair keep your eyes on the distraction, while the real trick happens elsewhere.
“I was raised in America when it was a cult of self-expression. I was just taught, express myself and have things to say and everyone will care about them. I think everyone was taught that, and most us found out that no one gives a shit what we think.”
There will be many, many interpretations of Swiss Army Man over the years, presuming of course that we survive President Trump’s nuclear winter (maybe we can all watch it on Snowpiercer together) and I imagine much of it will focus on what the film “really” is about. Is Swiss Army Man simply a parable of the power of friendship? Is it an extended metaphor for caring for a special needs child? Or is the film a meditation on the artistic process, with Hank funneling his own hang-ups and phobias into his creation, “Manny”? In that reading, the climax of the film could be taken as the disastrous debut of a new work, like someone reading a story you wrote and asking aloud if you have mental problems.
Regardless of what the Daniels’ ultimate, actual intentions were, what stands out is the stark emotional power of the film. Swiss Army Man’s surface may be glib, it may be pointedly exaggerated in its visual stylings (seriously, some shots enter the realm of Michel Gondry/Speed Racer in their willful fakery) but none of that detracts from the very real darkness and anguish at the center. At its core, this is about the pursuit of connection, about the things both cosmic and myopic, both divine and grotesque, that bind us together as people. The gag movie about Harry Potter’s hairy butthole (free indie band name for whoever wants) spewing magic farts is one of the most affecting expressions of why we live and love that I’ve seen in some time.
“Look at them, they’re just staring at me like, Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.”
Bizarrely, less than a week later I saw a comedy special that aimed for the same strange brew and hit me in much the same place. Bo Burnham’s Make Happy is a comedy show/musical concert/anguished howl into the void that popped up on Netflix not too long ago. All the italicized quotes you’ve been reading (or skipping, if you suck) come from that hour, fleck-drops of naked intimacy scattered between gags about burritos, dicks, and the fallacy of taking life advice from Katy Perry lyrics.
This isn’t some kind of accident. Burnham’s show has clearly been developed and polished to a razor sheen, with dead-on timing and delivery. Burnham’s been at this since he was a teenager making Youtube videos with songs about how his family thinks he’s gay, and he’s only gotten better and better at pulling giant laughs from the perfectly timed pause or smallest expression. And when he turns off the ironic distance and reveals the uncomfortably personal demons he is wrestling with, that too is accomplished with exacting precision.
None of these guys are saying anything new, since most problems aren’t that new. But what they have captured in things like Swiss Army Man and Make Happy is the feeling of waking up to the problems of the world, and the sense of taking ownership of those problems and taking the first steps forward. At a certain point, we all learn that there’s no curing sadness or weakness or loss. The best art creates an illustration of that knowledge, and gives us the tools and perspective we need to face that dark. Whether it’s a movie about a magic farting corpse or a comedy special, art can be a companion, putting an arm around your shoulders and reminding you that it’s OK to laugh at this insane rock we inhabit. And sometimes that’s exactly what you need to better face tomorrow.
“We all deserve love. Even on the days when we aren’t our best. ‘Cause we all suck, but love can make us suck less. We all deserve love. It’s the best part of being alive. And I would know, I just turned 25.”
(Our own Frank Calvillo already wrote a terrific review of Swiss Army Man, which you can read HERE, and Jordan Troublefield did a podcast, which you can listen to here, but I’ve been thinking about the film a lot since I saw it last week and I wanted to get some words down on it)