For what was likely the better part of a decade, I spouted off the line “Better out than in, eh?” from the movie “Shrek” without really knowing what it meant. The maxim refers to passing gas, of course, but the true and deeper meaning eluded me for quite some time. What the crude ogre really says relates to being yourself and embracing the stench rather than letting something you need to expel bottle up inside.
15 years later, “Better Out Than In” could be an alternate title – or at the very least a slogan – for the Daniels’ “Swiss Army Man.” (The directing duo Daniel Schienert and Daniel Kwan make it easy on everyone and go by just “Daniels,” like Madonna or something.) The movie has farts and flatulence to spare, but they are not some kind of sophomoric gag for easy laughs. Farts serve as a hilarious, self-effacing encapsulation of the film’s thematic heft. We have to embrace that which other people – and society as a whole – want us to keep inside. Sometimes, we even have to let it out, no matter how sloppy, stinky and unpleasant it might turn out.
Farts save the life of Paul Dano’s Hank, a depressed drifter about to hang himself in his beachfront isolationism. He hears them coming from Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny, a corpse (yes, you read that correctly) that washes ashore just moments before he tightens the noose. In many ways, the two men are ironic contrasts at first meeting. Hank may be the living, breathing and functioning human, but the involuntary toots make Manny’s lifeless body more animated than him.
From there, the film enters into a truly Gonzo realm – especially once Manny becomes more than a human-sized sack of potatoes for Hank to lug around on his back. The Daniels take daring absurdist leaps where the boundary between miracle and hallucination is never quite delineated. In a rustic playhouse of imagination that recall the most vividly realized creations of Michel Gondry, Hank begins instructing Manny on how to function in the world.
This process includes both the biological impulses like erections and physical attraction as well as the social constraints like courtship rituals and gendered boundaries. All are foreign to him and must be relearned. Yet in reteaching these facts and constructs, Hank comes to realize just how silly some of our unwritten rules are – and how far they stray from our natural states.
Amidst the many flights of whimsy in “Swiss Army Man” – and they fly a mile a minute from the high-energy Daniels – it can be easy to lose sight of the sincere beating heart right at the core of the film. Was it all real, what was imagined … those questions are fine, but they are beside the point. This is a love story, fairly literally between the two characters but also between Hank and the world itself. This vagabond, whose opening messages to sea read “I am so bored” and “I don’t want to die alone,” recaptures his ability to find joy in the small mechanics of life. Watching the spark return to his eye when role playing as Manny’s lost love is far more exciting than any utilitarian deployment of Manny’s corpse.
A double (or constructed corpse) probably does most of the fun stunt work for the corpse, but much credit must go to Daniel Radcliffe for delivering a colorful yet wooden performance that anchors Manny in reality. From voice modulation to physical impulse suppression, this is the work of a true master craftsman. He may well be a pioneer in terms of figuring out how to writhe about in the grips of uncontrollable flatulence while also being dead. For all the Internet goofballs who have thrown about the phrase “you can’t spell fart without art,” 95 minutes of vindication lie ahead in “Swiss Army Man.” B+ /