manic pixie dream girl
[man-ik pik-see dreem gurl]
1.) A character who exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.
2.) An all-or-nothing-proposition.
Such are the words of one Nathan Rabin, the poor bastard who gave birth to the term "manic pixie dream girl" way back in 2007 as a response to Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, and who has regretted doing so all his life since. How could he have known that a simple four-word phrase could saturate pop culture consciousness thoroughly enough to put him on the radars of Mindy Kaling and even Crowe himself? Neither of these things suck, mind you, but for a writer, watching helplessly as your creation burgeons beyond your care is a uniquely hellish experience, so let’s show the guy a little compassion.
At the same time let’s also give him applause, because without his fancy-pants wordsmithing, we might all have reacted to Swiss Army Man very, very differently.
Yes, Swiss Army Man, the farting corpse movie, the movie where Daniel Radcliffe is cast as a dead man so bloated with flatulence that suicidal Paul Dano is able to propel himself from a remote island to mainland shores (and which is now available on Blu-ray for all you suckers who missed it in theaters), is a manic pixie dream girl movie, though not in the way you, or anybody, might assume at a glance. In point of fact it’s the anti-manic pixie dream girl movie, a film that skewers the cliché without ever mentioning it by name. That’s the trick, of course, because it doesn’t have to. Remember: Rabin gave the manic pixie dream girl trope its appellation. He didn’t invent the trope itself. The movies did. If you apply that term loosely enough, you’ll find any number of examples going back decades and change, from Roman Holiday to The Apartment to Annie Hall.
So in an alternate timeline where mankind is refused the gift of Rabin’s writing, the manic pixie dream girl would still be a thing—we just wouldn’t know what to call it. What’s especially funny about Swiss Army Man, directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the two-man filmmaking dynamo known simply as "Daniels," is that there isn’t actually a manic pixie dream girl in it, no quixotic, effervescent, spritely young dame who exists solely for the purpose of rescuing a sad sack wanker from his self-imposed doldrums by imbuing him with a zest for life. Instead, there is Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and she is neither manic, nor a pixie, though she does happen to be the girl of the film’s protagonist’s dreams. Too bad he’s a fucking creep who eats squirrels, hangs out with cadavers, and lives in the woods behind her house. He’s also, as it turns out, Swiss Army Man’s manic pixie dream girl guy. Repeat: Hank, the character Paul Dano plays in the film, is a manic pixie dream dude—for Manny, the corpse. More on that shortly.
We’ll start at the ending and work our way backward, because that’s the point in the narrative where we become acquainted with Sarah (Winstead), the woman who serves as Hank’s object of affection for the bulk of the film’s duration. Seen through his eyes in acts one and two, she is the spitting image of the manic pixie dream girl, a flesh-and-blood person bathed in soft, natural lighting who we’re given to assume is every bit as lonesome and melancholy as Hank. We know that he has yet to introduce himself to her, but we also sense that Swiss Army Man is building up to a big, climactic moment where he digs deep and comes up with the grit to do just that. We wonder if the final shot will be of the two of them getting coffee.
This just means we’ve let Swiss Army Man pull the wool over our eyes, because it’s beyond obvious that something’s "off" with Hank, with his image of Sarah, with his relationship to her, with his thinking about how romance works. This is not a person accustomed to maintaining meaningful human connections. This is a person who spent the aughts dousing his eye holes with movies like Garden State, Almost Famous, My Sassy Girl, Sweet November, (500) Days of Summer and The Last Kiss, plus classics like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Something Wild, Butterflies are Free, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and What’s Up, Doc?. We’re talking about a guy who has learned about the fairer sex through cinema, sort of like how Oldboy’s Oh Dae-su learned how to fight by watching TV for 15 years, except that Dae-su’s imaginary training is successful while Hank’s makes him look even more pathetic than he does at first blush.
For clarity’s sake, let’s note that not all of those movies are bad—some of them are quite good. (What’s Up, Doc? is probably the best comedy film ever made, for example.) The best of them aren’t fully representative of the MPDG trope, either, because their female characters are actual characters instead of two-dimensional cutouts defined solely by MPGD qualities: In movies like My Sassy Girl or Elizabethtown, or Crowe’s 2015 effort Aloha, the female lead is designed to facilitate a man’s self-actualization. They are written as functions of plot instead of fully-fledged characters. By contrast, Judy Maxwell’s haphazard pursuit of Howard Bannister has an anarchic impact on his life, but in pursuing him she pursues something for herself. And let’s not forget Roman Holiday, a film built on the give-and-take between Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, in which she gives him the scoop of a lifetime and he helps her enjoy a day of freedom from her royal obligations.
On the other side of that we have Hank, who acts only on his own behalf. He shapes Sarah as he wants her to be in his own mind, never giving a thought to her reality. He is so thoroughly deluded that when his rotting companion, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), unexpectedly comes to life, he decides to teach his reanimated chum the meaning of true love by essentially reenacting a prototypical manic pixie dream girl scenario, a sweded version of the very films his entire world view appears to be informed by: Hank dresses in improvised drag and builds a bus out of nature’s detritus to copy the setting in which he encounters Sarah every day of his life, using Manny as his surrogate to play out the scenario where he actually works up the nerve to talk to her.
Translated, that means Swiss Army Man contains a series of montages where our manic pixie dream Dano pretends that he’s the woman he loves from afar and then instructs a man’s carcass on how best to ingratiate himself toward said woman. No matter how you cut it, the whole scene is every bit as fucked up in practice as it sounds on paper, maybe even more so depending on how well you can tolerate escalating morbid weirdness. Either way, Hank is both the puppet and the puppeteer in his own MPDG picture, the manipulator and the manipulated all at once. Sarah is just the victim of his misogynist daydreaming. That ending? The one where all of the gathered characters—including Sarah, her husband and daughter, the police officer who arrests Hank, and Hank’s dad—stand on the beach and gaze as Manny begins violently passing gas before motoring off into the sunset? It’s horrific.
We laugh because farts are funny, and because life doesn’t train us to do anything else in this sort of situation, but Winstead’s disbelieving and near-silent "what the fuck?" line read says it all: Hank is nutty, not nutty in the same fashion as a Judy Maxwell or an Audrey Hankel, but nutty in the way that people who put on scary clown costumes and hang out in dark places are nutty. He’s Ed Gein, or perhaps Ted Bundy, just without all of the serial killing, which makes him preferable but only by default. You’d rather get punched in the eye than kicked in the balls. You’d rather be hunted down by Paul Dano than by America’s most notorious lunatics, and yet the film’s resolution is of little comfort because Hank’s identity conflation is proof of his self-deception. He doesn’t have the stones to say anything to Sarah, so he just contents himself by camping within minutes of her backyard and pantomiming his fantasy for days. With a dead dude.
We have a name for Hank’s behavior (male entitlement), and a big bag of adjectives we can append to his behavior (feeble, gross, toxic), so it’s only appropriate that we should have a name for his fantasy, too. With or without the manic pixie dream girl moniker, the meaning of Swiss Army Man would remain the same, but having the right language to talk about it sure does help.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.