Tuesday, August 2, 2016

"'Swiss Army Man' (And The Better Film It Reminded Me Of)"

I am not sure of the number – it doesn’t really matter – but word is – whatever that means – that there are only seven original storylines, all other stories being variations on those universal themes.

Love, hate, envy… I don’t know, I am sure they are written down somewhere.  But I get it. 

You start with Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – adversarial opposites, fusing into passionate connection – or maybe you don’t start with that.  Maybe Shakespeare got the idea from some imaginative predecessor.  But whatever.  You have there the template for virtually every romantic comedy even since, exemplified most notably on television by the Sam-and-Diane relationship on Cheers and the ultimately scorching Maddie-David relationship on Moonlighting.  Not to mention the Castles and the Bones and virtually every other cable mystery series.  (Just once I’d like to see the couple hate each other at the beginning, their antagonism gradually escalates and they wind up killing each other in the end.  That would be different.  Though I am not sure it would “test” very well.)

Here’s possibly an eighth original storyline:

“A congenitally shy person escapes his oppressive shell with the assistance of an inanimate ‘human’ surrogate.”  

That’s the summary of Swiss Army Man (2016.)

A shy island castaway (Paul Dano) – his shyness demonstrated in flashbacks, it being difficult to be reclusive when there is nobody else on the island – is about to hang himself when onto the beach a body washes a body that turns out to be dead. 

And also a farter.

The corpse’s prodigious farts reaching speedboat engine intensity, the almost suicide climbs onto his back and rides him away like a jet ski. 

This escape ushers a danger-fraught trek to “civilization”, during which the introvert and the dead guy who farts – and squirts drinking water, his erection also serving as a direction-assisting compass – develop a deepening relationship, the introvert eventually maturing, signaling, after the farting corpse’s departure, the possibility for a (relatively) normal life in the future.

In a promotional news article for the movie, the actor portraying the introvert (Paul Dano) explains that he was intrigued by the project’s challenge of the first fart making the audience laugh and the last fart making the audience cry.

Spoiler Alert (at least for me):  Not even close.

So all right.  You have a long-shot idea for a movie.  You were unable pull it off.  Blame the idea – too weird.  But so what?  You want “safe”, write “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”  “Safe” isn’t always safe, but it’s safer.  (And sometimes, monumentally successful.) 

A-dead-guy-who-farts-transforming-another-guy’s-life movie?  You’re pretty much asking for trouble.

Though not necessarily.

In Lars and the Real Girl (2007), an “attachment phobic” young man (Ryan Gosling) develops a relationship with a lifelike, inflatable female doll, his consequent maturing signaling, after that relationship ends, signaling the possibility for a (relatively) normal life in the future.

Sound familiar?  Minus the farting and the directional erections?  (And not because I used a lot of the same words?)

That’s ‘cause they’re the same story.  Proving:  Well… let me reserve that for the fast-approaching conclusion.

In Lars and the Real Girl (written by Nancy Oliver, directed by Craig Gillespie), the “inanimate surrogate” story is presented with warmth, compassion, sensitivity and assiduous good taste.  In Swiss Army Man (credited to “Daniels” because both collaborators are named Daniel), it isn’t. 

In my view.

The first fart made me laugh.  The last fart, elicited not tears but relief that this unpleasant cinematic experience was finally over.

The identical premise in both films is indisputably bizarre.

But as these two convenient examples persuasively demonstrate…

That is not necessarily in impediment.

You can tell “bizarre” successfully. 

Or you can tell it the other way.

In the end…

Not surprisingly but worth reiterating…

It comes down to the storyteller.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Shakespeare in fact - as I'm sure you know - drew heavily on precursors such as Chaucer, folk tales, and classical mythology. Humans apparently like to tell - and hear/experience - certain kinds of stories, and when you think about the fact that the basic biological and emotional realities of human lives change really very little over millennia despite the vast changes in technology and comfort that surround them, it's really no surprise.


JED said...

Earl said:
"(Just once I’d like to see the couple hate each other at the beginning, their antagonism gradually escalates and they wind up killing each other in the end. That would be different. Though I am not sure it would “test” very well.)"

That sounds like the plot for The War of the Roses. While the montage near the beginning implies they are in love before they marry, I think the rest of the story implies that perhaps they weren't as in love as they thought. I liked all the actors but did not like the movie.

Ed said...

I did watch "Lars" but remember very little about it. Was a novel premise, or so I thought, but from what little I recall, it was just effen boring!

As JED mentioned the War of the Roses - a story carried to its logical but extreme conclusion. After the success of the Douglas-Turner team in Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile, I wondered if that was Douglas and Turner letting us know they wouldn't be doing anymore movies together. And I don't believe they have.

Dead man farting has no appeal.