Of Films and Flatulence: “The BFG” and “Swiss Army Man”

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It’s easy for one to regard fart jokes as the lowest form of humor known to man. I have little doubt that the first laugh ever elicited in human history was prompted by a fart. Nothing can interrupt God-given serenity in the Garden of Eden quite like the hysterical sound and heinous smell of the guttural discharge dubbed by author Roald Dahl as “whizzpopping.” Two new films released in Chicago today take flatulent gags to new heights of hilarity and both succeeded in bringing out my inner child. I had a silly smile on my face throughout much of Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG,” an adaptation of Dahl’s 1982 classic written for the screen by “E.T.” scribe Melissa Mathison, who died last November. The film premiered in Cannes to a mixed response, and I was worried that the director would be incapable of evoking the whimsy that characterized his earlier family fare. In recent years, Spielberg has been much more successful with adult-oriented pictures such as “Lincoln” and “Bridge of Spies” than he has with the hollow, kid-friendly spectacles of “Indiana Jones 4” and “The Adventures of Tintin.”

Though I can clearly identify the flaws in 1991’s “Hook” even while peering at it through the rose-colored haze of nostalgia, I still believe the film is loaded with great visual ideas and moments of genuine power, particularly during the atmospheric first act. 25 years later, Spielberg appears to be correcting the missteps of that film with “The BFG,” which incorporates strikingly similar imagery in its tale about an orphaned girl, Sophie (spunky newcomer Ruby Barnhill), who befriends a Big Friendly—and Farting—Giant (played in a marvelous motion capture performance by newly minted Oscar-winner Mark Rylance). There is a balcony at the orphanage that “bogeymen” use to capture kids much like Captain Hook’s cronies, a mischievous ball of fiery light (a “dream,” in this case) that looks no different from Tinkerbell and some memorable shots of giants being hoisted in the air, looking as ungainly as the adult Peter on his return trip to Neverland. Yet instead of becoming mired in the shrill slapstick that plagued “Hook,” “The BFG” avoids overstuffing the narrative with busyness, enabling the story to unfold at a measured but never tiresome pace. Much of the humor is derived from the timeless kookiness of Dahl’s language for the Giant, who even borrows Willy Wonka’s trademark phrase, “scrumdiddlyumptious.”

Spielberg is clearly a more patient and assured filmmaker than he was a quarter-century ago, and his restraint causes the film’s moments of epic silliness to have an even greater impact. Easily the best sequence in the picture occurs when Sophie and the BFG seek help from the Queen of England, brilliantly portrayed by Penelope Wilton, best known for her work on “Downton Abbey,” where she played the rival of Maggie Smith (a.k.a. Granny Wendy in “Hook”). She invites the pair into her house for breakfast, resulting in some ingenious fish-out-of-water comedy that builds to one of the most expertly crafted and explosively funny fart jokes I’ve seen. It all has to do with the BFG’s favorite fizzy beverage in which the bubbles go down rather than up, causing those who gulp it to expel not a burp, but a—you get the idea. This made me recall another classic set piece where Grandpa Joe and Charlie Bucket sneak a sip of Wonka’s Fizzy Lifting Drinks, and must burp their way back to the ground after the drink causes them to become airborne. That grandparent/child relationship is not all that different from the one forged by Sophie and the BFG, who has all the gangly charm of Joe, not to mention the head and neck shape of E.T. What makes the film work above all is the warmth radiating from Rylance’s eyes. His performance transcends the nagging limitations of CGI and makes you believe.

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That’s as good of a segue as any into discussing “Swiss Army Man,” a film that I frankly can’t believe exists. The uncompromising peculiarity of its story reportedly caused numerous walk-outs during its premiere at Sundance, yet it went on to win a directing prize for its two rookie filmmakers, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, anyway—and good for them. This is a film that shouldn’t work at all for countless reasons, and yet the “Daniels” (as they are credited) somehow manage to pull it off spectacularly well. It’s as if these guys watched “Cast Away” while stoned and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the corpse that washed ashore became Tom Hanks’ friend instead of Wilson the volleyball? And what if the corpse farted—a whole lot? And what if his farts could propel his body across the water like a speedboat? And what if this magical corpse was played by Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe?” I imagine their story development sessions went exactly like that. Usually a crazy idea gets drained of its giddy grandeur on its way to the screen, but all of it remains intact here, causing audiences to laugh partly out of amusement and partly out of disbelief. It’s not flawless and the plot falls apart a bit during the final reel, but the Daniels’ pure madcap exuberance coupled with the full commitment of their leading men more than make up for the film’s missteps.

Paul Dano has played several memorably repellant characters throughout his career, but his bewildered protagonist in this film is immensely likable from the get-go. He can’t believe his good fortune in stumbling upon a new companion who may provide him with the key to journeying back home. As hinted in the title, Radcliffe is sort of an all-purpose corpse, with many surprising abilities springing from his bodily functions. He gradually becomes more “lifelike” as the film progresses, though whether this is due to Dano’s hallucinations or otherworldly magic is ultimately for the viewer to interpret. After working with so many British acting legends during his decade as Potter, Radcliffe has proven himself to be one of the most adventurous actors of his generation. He’d rather fail at tackling a challenge than coast on easy victories, and this film is—no joke—his finest onscreen triumph to date. His punishing pratfalls and exquisitely timed quips (yes, he occasionally talks) practically redefine the art of deadpan comedy, while his plight as a literal fish—er, corpse-out-of-water is touchingly conveyed in scenes where he struggles to comprehend the world of the living. Credit production designer Jason Kisvarday for assembling Dano’s hand-crafted recreations of civilization, such as a bus constructed from spare materials. Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s score adds a further layer of soulfulness to the film, epitomized by the catchy tune Radcliffe warbles in order to keep Dano’s spirits up (I’ve already listened to it multiple times on Spotify).

“Swiss Army Man” stands as indelible proof that virtually anything can be turned into a film, as long as it’s handled with intelligence and ample creativity. Only in the last 20 minutes do the filmmakers seem less confident in their execution, and the very final scene struck me as so perfunctory that it earned a laugh once the screen cut to the title card reading, “THE END.” Yet the fact I wanted to see the film again immediately after it ended certainly bodes well for its shelf life. I highly suggest moviegoers take in a double bill of “The BFG” and “Swiss Army Man” this weekend, and not just because they are united by unforgettable flatulence. Radcliffe makes multiple references to a particular Spielberg film, which I wouldn’t dream of revealing, and the running gag that emerges is every bit as uproarious as Sigourney Weaver’s extended cameo in “Finding Dory.” Let’s just say it’s a film synonymous with summer fun, and the same could be said of these two crowd-pleasers. They are a gas.

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