Swiss Army Man begins with Hank (Paul Dano), seemingly stranded on a desert island and about to kill himself. He changes his mind when Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a special corpse with a spastic colon, washes onto the shore. There’s really no point in summarizing what little plot this movie contains. It’s an incredibly odd phantasmagoria, a psychological odyssey marching to the beat of a thunderous ass. In fact, while it certainly doesn’t skimp on piss and shit, Swiss Army Man is best characterized as a cinematic paean to flatulence. I think it’s fair to say that never before has farting been featured so prominently and extensively in a film released to theaters.
Swiss Army Man probably belongs in the subgenre we refer to as the “dollar comedy.” Film comedy tends to be a pretty straightforward genre—either it makes you laugh or it doesn’t. But occasionally a movie comes along that is obviously terrible in all of the ways a movie can be—acting, writing, directing, editing, etc.—but nevertheless produces more than a few chuckles. Even if the attempts at humor are obviously poor and/or childish, but expectations are low enough (that is, if you’ve only paid one dollar), the laughs might emerge. Examples of such dollar comedies from recent years would include White Chicks (2004), The Benchwarmers (2006), Kickin’ It Old Skool (2007), and That’s My Boy (2012). In Kickin’ It Old Skool, an embarrassingly inadequate hip-hop troupe wins a dancing contest when one of their derelict members urinates on the competition. In the juvenile illogic of the film, it is somehow obvious to everyone that the judges should award victory to the urinator. While such sudden absurdity would usually ruin a film’s plot (or render it part of the avant garde), in a dollar comedy it is more or less taken for granted.
The dollar comedy is an interesting subgenre because it is often unclear whether you’re laughing at or with the movie. On the one hand, you’re clearly reveling in the “badness” of it (the way folks used to enjoy watching Ed Wood films), but on the other, the film is certainly succeeding in its goal of making you giggle.
Swiss Army Man would at first seem not to fit the dollar comedy mold; it seems to be asking that you take it more seriously than you would The Benchwarmers. In part this is because the film stars Paul Dano rather than David Spade, but it’s also because much of the dialogue makes (otiose) gestures to the meaning of life, as Dano becomes a unhinged father figure to Radcliffe’s amnesiac carcass. One second Dano will be lecturing on the beauty of life, and the next using Radcliffe’s boner as a combination divining rod and homing beacon (thus giving new meaning to the phrase “stiff as a corpse”). The film is thus a bizarre congeries of cinematic homages, paternal wisdom, and incredible crepitation.
In short, I believe that the farting alone should not allow any viewer to take Swiss Army Man “seriously,” and thus I would ultimately place it in the dollar comedy genre.