People made a stink about the walkouts during the Sundance premiere of music-video-and-advertising geniuses the Daniels’ first feature film, Swiss Army Man. It stars Daniel Radcliffe (Manny) as a farting, rotting corpse with superpowers and Paul Dano (Hank) as a sad-sack suicidal stalker trying to get home through a forest. The easiest conclusion to jump to — and the one the filmmakers did — is that those walkouts didn’t like all the farting, or that they were uncomfortable with the talk of masturbation, death and pornography side by side with more emotional material. As a human who’s totally comfortable with all of those things at their max capacity, I’m pretty confident that people actually left the theater because the story is one-note and the movie is about 75 minutes too long.
Let me be clear: The Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) are some of the most inventive and inspired video-makers working today. Their tongue-in-cheek humor and bizarre, mismatched story elements have made for gorgeous musical accompaniment for artists like Battles, Tenacious D and Chromeo. They are the gold standard for commercials and music videos today. Unfortunately, that mastery of the short form doesn’t do many favors for their first longform venture, where the story has to justify its length.
Throughout, it’s as though the Daniels aren’t confident enough in their dialogue’s — or actors’ — ability to tell the story, so they jump around with insert and aside shots when they could be building character by keeping the camera on the protagonists. It’s filmmaking for a short attention span, but with narrative features, to truly immerse an audience in a world they’re going to live in for 90 to 120 minutes, every single camera angle should inform the story or world, not distract from it with a sideshow of mildly amusing montages.
It’s admirable that the Daniels brought their always-interesting, never-boring renegade aesthetic to this movie, but there’s no need to Mountain Dew every scene. Restraint is cool. Blowing your wad too soon is not. At times, as these characters walk — or get dragged — through the forest on their way back to civilization to reclaim their lives, it feels like the Jack Link’s Sasquatch could pop out from behind a tree at any moment; non sequiturs, not structure, reign here.
The film is beautiful, however, moody with sun-kissed lighting. Radcliffe is endearing, and Dano sells his weirdo in the woods with panache. Some funny lines butt into the picture, like Hank’s idea of erotica — signing a one-year lease with a girl and watching Netflix — or his proclamation that “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.” But for all the film’s waxing poetic on the meaning of life and death, the dialogue is bro-y and unoriginal, like a high-school boy’s idea of “depth.” If it were funnier — like the kind of humor that feels relevant and not just a funny thing someone said one night and decided to throw into a movie — the freshman tone could be forgivable. Dear god, I really did want to laugh.