Did you have that friend in junior high who was overly fond of jokes about bodily functions? That friend who mixed all the food on their lunch tray together and ate it with a spoon? That friend who seemed to get exceptional delight out of saying and the doing things that made you and your classmates shake their heads? I was one of the “weird kids,” and I hung out with the other “weird kids,” so I certainly did. Those kids were my best friends.
Swiss Army Man is like that strange friend. The flatulence of one of the two main characters is a running gag throughout the film, effusive expectoration is a key plot element, and one could describe the film’s middle act as one long conversation about masturbation. As with that strange junior high friend, all this oddness isn’t aggressive or malicious. It’s genuinely good-natured. Swiss Army Man thinks this stuff is hilarious, and to the film’s credit, this body humor isn’t ancillary to the plot either, as it is in so many gross-out comedies. Flatulence and excrement is essential to the film’s plot and message, strange as that may sound.
Swiss Army Man’s story is about a man, Hank (Paul Dano), who has been stranded on a beach following a shipwreck sometime in the unspecified past. A dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore, and the two form a unique friendship. Ultimately, the dead body helps Hank find his way home.
Of course, Hank is also dealing with the personal issues that drove him out to sea in the first place. He doesn’t think much of himself and doesn’t believe that anyone else loves him either. Hank doesn’t really believe that anyone should love him, considering how ugly, gross, and stupid he thinks he is. This is where the bodily functions come in, because there’s no better reminder of our grossness than our constant need to expel the gas that builds up in our abdomen out of either end of our bodies. As Hank repeatedly reminds the body, the last thing that happens when you die is that your intestines re;ease whatever waste is still inside you.
So, there is the odor of melancholy about the film’s focus on body fluids and farts (as there was to my weird childhood friends’ humor as we got to know each other better). Our “gross” bodies make our mortality unavoidable, Hank has to find meaning in life even though he’s certainly going to die. Love, the film suggests, is partly a matter of being okay with the disgusting mortality of another person. That’s a lovely, Ecclesiastes-echoing message. Whether or not you can stomach that lovely sentiment expressed via fart jokes is up to you.