It’s a big month for creative flatulence in the movies. Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” climaxes with a rousing comical sequence in which Buckingham Palace is dusted with clouds of magic green farts, and the defiantly uncategorizable “Swiss Army Man” features a vision of what may be the first gas-powered human jet-ski.
Played by Daniel Radcliffe, of all people.
A rapturously strange comedy-drama that suggests “Cast Away” crossed with “Weekend at Bernie’s,” the movie prompted both walk-outs and cheers when it played at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Both reactions are understandable: This is a buddy movie in which one of the buddies is dead. Yet, if anything, the emotional bonding is — or wants to be — more resonant than ever.
All we know, really, is that Hank (Paul Dano) has been marooned on a desert island long enough to want to end it all and is about to do so when a body (Radcliffe) washes ashore at his feet. It has been floating at sea for some time and gases have built up in the corpse. Disgusting, sure, but also a surreally practical way for Hank to motor back toward civilization. The titles haven’t even come on yet, but you’ll know if you’re in or you’re out.
Now on the thickly wooded mainland and still lost, Hank totes his new friend — nicknamed Manny — through the underbrush, discovering further utilities of this human Swiss army knife. Manny helpfully dispenses water from his mouth, and a particular body part always seems to point north. After a while, he even appears to come back to life and start talking. Death seems to have wiped Manny’s mind clean, though, and Hank has to explain everything as if to an articulate, immobilized toddler. This includes such mysteries as women, human connection, and love.
“Swiss Army Man” comes to us from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, two film and music-video makers — they present themselves as a “directing duo” called Daniels — who have a long-established mind-meld that goes back to their days at Emerson College. There’s a gleeful short-hand communication undergirding their first movie, a sense that the Daniels, like the Coen brothers, laugh at jokes that no one outside their bubble quite gets.
They’re also young, and once “Swiss Army Man” gets past the el-grosso absurdity of its premise, it settles down for a lightly impassioned, likably adolescent meditation on Why We’re Here, What It All Means, and How To Talk To Girls. Who’s the woman on Manny’s cellphone screen? He can’t remember and the Daniels raise their movie to a pitch of cleverness and creativity as Hank tries to jog his friend’s memory with romantic scenarios built from the flotsam and jetsam around them, dresses in drag, and takes this bromance as close to the edge of romance as the filmmakers dare.
Some of these scenes are charming confections of sound and vision, the Daniels working on a pitch of playfulness that owes a lot to Michel Gondry, another music-video wunderkind turned feature film fantasist. Also, it has to be said that Radcliffe’s performance here is a remarkable work of physical control, one that only masquerades as lack of control. Dano is his touchingly neurasthenic self, but the former Harry Potter manages to make Manny seem simultaneously alive and dead, and that requires a rigor that’s the opposite of mortis.
At this stage of their careers, unfortunately, the Daniels are less skilled at the prosaic business of wrapping up a movie. The final 20 minutes of “Swiss Army Man” brings other characters onto the scene — including the talented Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who seems unsure what the directors want from her — and makes the mistake of trying to explain everything we’ve seen. The movie turns forced, confusing, confused; the last scene doesn’t even bother to make sense on the filmmakers’ own terms. The collapse of their high-wire act is complete.
This is frustrating: “Swiss Army Man” debuts a unique creative sensibility that its makers are unable to sustain. It’s also exhilarating: They’re just getting started.
SWISS ARMY MAN
Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. At Kendall Square, suburbs. 95 minutes. R (language and sexual material; necro-bromance).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.