I first saw this at the theatre and, despite the fact that it starts with a whole lot of farting in a wide variety of tones and tempos, the ending is deeply moving. The surface story is about Hank, trapped on a deserted island - sort of - who finds a dead body, Manny, who slowly comes back to life - sort of, and they try to get back home in a Wizard of Oz kind of way. Here are a few different things I think it could be about; I'll likely read much into it because it had me thinking and questioning at every turn. Authorial intention be damned! There are a ton of spoilers, but they won't really ruin anything. This is a film that can be watched over and over.
This is a resurrection story. When people come back from the dead (like Gandalf and Jesus and Harry Potter), they tend to come when they're needed the most. People don't come back because they couldn't get enough of being alive, but because other people really need them to live. Hank is in a period of profound need. He's just about to kill himself when he spots Manny on the beach. Over the course of the film, Hank refers to previous suicides and the need to sing to keep his thoughts at bay. He's struggling with himself and on the verge of losing, but "there's always a thought beautiful enough to keep you going." But maybe that's just a survival mechanism our animal brain has evolved. He couldn't get through his struggle without Manny there to help talk him through to the other side.
It's a story about loneliness. Just regular loneliness that can be debilitating and so shameful. We don't want others to find out we ever experience loneliness. Hank was too afraid to talk to the girl of his dreams; there were no parties and friends in his life, so he just walked away from society. His mother died and left him alone with a critical dad: "How do you expect anyone to talk to you if you sound retarded?". Hank developed an internal critic that prevented him from connecting with others, and his time with Manny, a facet of his inner self, helps him through his own negative thought processes. Manny is innocent to criticism. He's Wilson in Cast Away or Donald in Adaptation or Pinocchio still learning about good and evil and created primarily to keep Geppetto company. But he could also be a Frankenstein, better than human, but also able to terrorize a crowd with his ignorance of social norms. There's a consequence for seeking enlightenment, for leaving the cave (#Platoiseverywhere). We can't fit in if we're weird: "They'll call you names like Hanky Wanky." But there's a cost to ourselves - to our integrity and our authenticity - if we conform to social roles that establish an artificiality in our relationships. The denial of our true selves keeps us from ourselves.
It's a story about humanity and our disgust with ourselves as animals. Hank and Manny become archeologists humming the theme to Jurassic Park while studying the nature of homo sapiens who poop and make garbage - they are surrounded by garbage - and then die. We're more important than trash, but not by much. At least we decompose completely. Having forgotten his previous life, Manny is an alien in our world and must be told everything. Through describing the things we see as disgusting and that we hide from others (flatulating, defecating, masturbating...), Hank begins to recognize the harmlessness of them and questions the self-loathing caused by our very animal natures as they lay in a pit in the woods.
And it's a story about love. Hank is seeking that one person to make him happy. He explains porn to Manny: "Before the internet, every girl was more special," but it's telling that Manny becomes aroused only when Hank invents a romantic tale about the girl in the magazine, and later only when he sees that one girl from back home: Sarah. Love is what brings Manny back to life and provokes Hank to go back. He runs through a better version of meeting Sarah with Manny's help, as he teaches Manny how to talk to a girl who is himself dressed up as Sarah. This bit had me re-reading Albee's The Zoo Story:
"It's just...it's just that...It's just that if you can't deal with people, you have to make a start somewhere. WITH ANIMALS! Don't you see? A person has to have some way of dealing with SOMETHING. If not with people...SOMETHING. With a bed, with a cockroach, with a mirror...no, that's too hard, that's one of the last steps ... with...some day, with people. People...."Manny learns about fear from a bear encounter, and it's relived here. He expresses all Hank's doubts about saying something stupid, but Hank is encouraging despite the terror they feel. "The more you know, the less you'll like me." As they fall, plunging into depths of water, they kiss (like Pinocchio facing his fears at the bottom of the ocean). The directors have commented on the gay necrophilia of the film, but I can only see that scene as an embracing of the self, as Hank's eventual acceptance of himself as lovable. Now he's able to love others, and wants to show he cares, but is wary because showing you care is weird, and "we can't be weird in front of others." As he explains to Manny that Sarah is actually married to someone else, Manny grieves, suddenly impotent to action, but Hank is energized and recognizes that "We don't need her; we have each other." I haven't decided if this is denial of his own grief or if it's acceptance of himself as a whole being no longer needing the love of another to maintain him. I prefer the latter explanation, but later lines lean to the former as Hank instructs Manny to stop thinking about it.
In a final fight with the bear, Manny proves courageous enough to get Hank to Sarah's doorstep regardless the futility of the meeting. "We're all ugly, dying sacks of shit, and it just takes one person to be okay with that." As they get closer to home, the illusion of their bond is broken, and we start to see Hank as others will see him: a crazy person dragging around a dead body. Before that we're so immersed in his fantasy we sympathize with his struggle. And then we watch him, finally reaching civilization and seen by a child as he's fighting with a corpse.
The others find Hank's amazing tableaus made of garbage in the forest. We don't just destroy things; we're industrious creatures. His relationship to art especially reminded me of Freud's Civilization and its Discontents. Hank used fantasies and works of art to sublimate his impulses. He avoided the pain of the world through deliberate isolation. We have a mistaken belief that a simpler, happier life has been possible but is lost because we've become too civilized, and we're unable to endure the social constraints imposed on us. Yet we need to live in a community structure. Love should keep society going, but it's dangerously dependent on the chosen love-object. Freud even has stuff to say about gay necrophilia specifically, but generally speaking, society frustrates us with a restricted view of sexually acceptable acts, which can be ignored if we're brave. But then we still have to deal with our aggressive tendencies.
Life can be profoundly difficult to endure. An eye towards the absurd can help. Luckily the others are able to see that just enough to connect with Hank. It's not ideal, but it might be enough.