Sunday, July 10, 2016

Swiss AR-15 Man – Moving Radcliffe Biopic, Potty Humor, or Both?

A documentary of Daniel Radcliffe’s life as a farting corpse, Swiss Army Man does more to normalize unrepresented gender identities than any film in a very long time.

When Warner Brothers announced that they’d be releasing another film set in the wizarding world of Harry Potter which incidentally wouldn’t feature any appearances by Harry Potter or Alan Rickman, many fans of J.K. Rowling’s devil-worshiping, irredeemable smut were left scratching their heads. Fortunately, loyalists to the series can now get their Harry fix elsewhere, with a lovingly crafted biopic of the actor whose alter-ego captivated an entire generation of responsible young communists. Swiss Army Man spares no expense in honestly depicting Daniel Radcliffe’s life as a farting corpse, and is bound to satisfy 20-something girls who still dream of sending their babies off to Gryffindor. Whether it completely lives up to its vast filmic potential is another question, one I’m inclined to answer in the negative for reasons I’ll kind of explain, maybe.

Swiss Army Man – The Good Parts Version

The frenetic, riotous trailer to Swiss Army Man makes it out to be an offbeat survival story riding on Radcliffe’s impressive versatility as one of #Brexit’s finest Navy corpsemen, but in the final product, the urgency of resurrecting Radcliffe from his mortal daze always trumps the urgency of Paul Dano’s character obtaining food or returning to civilization. In this it reminds me of… Jonathan Levine’s excellent satire Warm Bodies, in which the lovely Teresa Palmer also has to bring a well-groomed, amiable zombie back to life by kissing him and teaching him how to love again and stuff. Unlike Warm Bodies, but not really if you’ve seen Warm Bodies, Swiss Army Man has no sense of dramatic stakes or definite rules, as the Mur’can Hank is never seen consuming anything more filling than popcorn yet is able to build magnificent, makeshift vehicles out of sticks and random junk, to slaughter wildlife by using Daniel Radcliffe as an assault weapon, and, most spectacularly, to extend the battery life of an iPhone over three whole days, or however long this movie lasts.

Dano is indeed invincible for a coward whom we first see trying to hang himself out of despair of being stranded on a metaphorical island. Though he’s undoubtedly the better-endowed, higher-billed, and more verbose of the two actors involved in the project, he exists mainly to prop up and gaily romance Radcliffe’s flatulent sidekick, and the Daniels (Scheinert and Kwan) who purportedly directed this thing don’t concern themselves much with the outcome of the troubled loner’s arc. And that would be fine, if Swiss Army Man actually lived up to its full potential as a star-making documentary of the hitherto squandered character actor Daniel Radcliffe. In the Harry Potter franchise, The Woman In Black, and whatever else that guy has been in, casting directors have erroneously hired the comedic natural to play grave and serious males, leaving his true ability unmined and unknown to all but a select few visionaries like the Daniels, who have made a kind of effort herein to channel his deadpan brilliance to the world. For about the first 15 minutes they get it right, and Radcliffe blows and blusters and vomits with astonishing realism, but somewhere along the line the directors got it into their heads that the former boy wizard would need a speaking part to keep the audience’s interest, and this is where the movie takes a dismaying nosedive from illuminating biography into patronizing fiction.

Tragically, the ingenious stunt casting of Radcliffe as a literal tool who does whatever Labour his master requires of him crumbles beneath the filmmakers’ instinct to pander to a cruder segment of the population, one that probably has no interest whatsoever in watching a psychedelic, largely figurative story about a pervy, depressed stalker surviving in the wilderness by exploiting an imaginary friend imbued with miraculous anatomical “powers”. I had a similar reaction to the ending song performed by Sia in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, an afternoon showing of which drew not a single viewer besides the Author. The target audience of a movie like The Neon Demon – which I would cautiously recommend, by the way – doesn’t give a flying flip about the neutered, radio-friendly electropop of Sia or Diplo, and closing out such a cerebral, twisted, and borderline satanic picture with a girly dance track by the both of them felt like an insult to the sophistication of the grown-ass males who’d paid to see the blood- and boobs-laced arthouse picture.

Likewise, the decision to have Radcliffe uttering words extensively in Swiss Army Man not only played out to the artistic detriment of the film, compromising the integrity of the actor’s life story as a corpsman who cannot speak intelligibly, but came across as condescending to the patience of indie fans who are probably capable of sitting through a slower, less talkative feature. As the finished product stands, the best parts are those in which the Daniel is saying nothing and the Daniels let their visual absurdity do all the talking. To give you an idea of just how affecting and powerful Swiss Army Man can be, there’s a scene where Corpsman Manny uses explosive natural gas to hurtle himself towards an aggressive bear as a human fireball, and it is glorious.

I realize that there’s a sizeable number of people who’ve seen this movie – probably 40 or 50 at the greatest – who would justify Manny’s annoying dialogue as a figment of Hank’s imagination to help him cope with social and sexual frustration, and while there’s a lot of evidence to support this interpretation and the movie’s vague and open-to-interprety enough to mean a bunch of things, I still think the main character of Swiss Army Man is, in fact, the Swiss Army Man, and the core conflict his inability to let go of life, accept his failures, and pass into the afterlife. This is why, when he and Hank stumble back into civilization, the little girl acts so appalled at the sight and smell of him, and this is why he proverbially craps his pants right before he jets off into the sunset, bringing the story full circle. This is also why I don’t like the film as much as I would have if Paul Dano was the protagonist, because the creators neither utilize Radcliffe’s Big Bang-given stiffness that consistently nor commit themselves to a framework that explicitly rationalizes his behavior through the outcast’s loneliness. Cast Away this is not, because when the hero is already dead or teetering on the cusp of imminent death, there’s no process of survival in which to get invested. Even if one takes Dano to be the protagonist, the only way he’s dying is on the inside, starving from his incapacity to declare his feelings to an attractive bus passenger.

Apart from its daring but misguided performances and Dick Cheney-esque emotional gravitas, Swiss Army Man doesn’t offer too much as a film. The cinematography and digital coloring is pretty standard, gritty Sundance fare, better than anything recent from Hollywood but nothing special like the 2015 Best Picture winner Spotlight, which took place mostly in unornamented office spaces and presented a stunningly cogent meditation on the significance of the color of semen. The Daniels’ only directing background previous to this was in music videos, so it’s only natural that the mostly a cappella gibberish soundtrack complements the visuals really well. Evoking a mashup of second-rate Fleet Foxes or Grimes and the Beach Boys demos on the overall better-edited Love and Mercy, also starring a singing Paul Dano, the music sounds resplendent in the theater but is the kind of thing you would never, ever listen to for pleasure. Trust me, I tried.

Swiss Army Man aims to tell a touching, semi-biographical love story about a socially repressed homosexual man cross-dressing as a woman he obsesses over in order to seduce a farting corpse who glimpsed said woman on the necrophile’s phone and mistook her for a lover from his past life, and in that sense it largely succeeds. This is the most progressive film in terms of normalizing underrecognized gender identities since Being John Malkovich, but is it also the best film?

Of course not.  Everybody knows that film is Spotlight.

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