In the Critics this week

Benjamin Kunkel, Talitha Stevenson, Will Self and more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, writer and psychotherapist Talitha Stevenson examines the proliferation of new forms of addiction and the representation of addictive behaviour in literature. “All addictions,” Stevenson writes, “arise from the poignant desire to interpret existential anxieties as a physical lack … An addict tries to get ‘clean’, not because this is an end in itself, but in order to get back in the existential dirt with the rest of us. Cleanliness, in this sense, is a long way from godliness.” Addiction takes many forms, as novelists have long understood. “Most novels,” Stevenson contends, “are … about addiction: a sacred or fetishised object or behaviour is used by a character to displace or to eliminate more overwhelming anxieties.” Stevenson considers examples of this structure in the fiction of George Eliot, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.

In Books, American writer and n+1 co-editor Benjamin Kunkel reviews Slavoj Žižek’s new book about Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. “For many fellow leftists,” Kunkel observes, Žižek’s assumption of a highly idiosyncratic public persona “has been both a winning performance and a vexing one … [H]is intellectual celebrity has seemed a symptom of the very intellectual impasse he has diagnosed … [T]he figure of Žižek seemed to represent, encouragingly, the lifting of the post-cold-war embargo on radical thought and at the same time, discouragingly, its reimposition.”

Also in Books: Nigerian novelist Chika Unigwe reviews her compatriot Chinua Achebe's memoir There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra; the NS’s pop music critic Kate Mossman reviews Matt Thorne’s biography of Prince; and Labour peer Andrew Adonis pays tribute to the late Philip Gould in his review of Philip Gould: an Unfinished Life, edited by Denis Kavanagh.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Leos Carax’s new film Holy Motors; Rachel Cooke on the BBC’s new Victorian period drama The Paradise; Antonia Quirke on a Radio 4 documentary about a Tibetan lama; Andrew Billen on Carol Churchill’s new play and Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time; “Clapper Bridge”, a poem by Fiona Benson. PLUS: Will Self’s "Madness of Crowds".

Dreaming dangerously: Slavoj Žižek
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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories