THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
For better or worse I am a critic who gets hung up on details. For most of The Peanut Butter Falcon, I could roll with it as it eased it way down the North Carolina coastline. Then we got to the end, and I thought the people here, who already had done a host of pretty irrational things, went so far off the deep end I could no longer roll with it. I know what The Peanut Butter Falcon is going for: sweetness, inspiration, a folksy Mark Twain-like journey with an unlikely group of wanderers.
However, I've long held that it's one thing to know what someone is aiming for and another to believe it.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) has to live in a retirement home despite being only 22 years old because of his Down Syndrome. He has no family or friends to care for him, but he chafes at being stuck there. His great dream is to attend the wrestling school advertised by his hero, the Salt Water Redneck, on the VHS he watches ad nauseum. With some help from his roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), he makes a daring escape wearing nothing but his underwear to Ayden, North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is still emotionally scarred by the death of his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal, seen only in flashbacks). A fisherman by trade, he is struggling financially and has no issue taking from rival fishermen Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf). The battle escalates to Tyler burning down their equipment, fleeing as they give chase.
Unbeknownst to Tyler, Zak was hiding on his boat, and now the two join forces, Tyler more reluctantly. Tyler will take Zak to Ayden then go on his own to Jupiter, Florida to start anew. As our Huck & Jim float down the Outer Banks, Tyler simultaneously avoids and attempts to attract Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), Zak's caregiver who wants to bring him back.
Circumstances force them to join up as they avoid Duncan and Ratboy. Eventually finding the now-retired Salt Water Redneck aka Clint (Thomas Haden Church), his wrestling school is reopened for this passionate student and a chance for Zak's own match under his new wrestling name, "The Peanut Butter Falcon". Ultimately, despite violent acts visited on them, things work out for this new type of family.
As I said, despite my own misgivings about the overtly cloying nature of The Peanut Butter Falcon, I could accept things as they were going. It isn't until Zak is cheered on by Clint, Tyler and Eleanor about actually competing in a backyard wrestling match that I became alarmed.
It is more than just my thinking co-writers/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz pretty much ran out of story so they needed something more to add. It's again my poor penchant for details, and this detail is the idea that a group of adults would encourage and support anyone going into a wrestling ring with essentially a few hours of training. Zak's Down Syndrome on this matter is irrelevant: I would have been just as alarmed if it had been Tyler or Eleanor who was about to jump into the ring.
I thought they were all essentially bonkers for supporting someone's delusions masquerading as 'inspirational'. I thought it highly irresponsible for people to behave in this way.
Even if I put aside the notion that people old enough to know better would cheer on someone putting his life and health at risk in this way, The Peanut Butter Falcon failed to win me over because this is not an original idea.
As I kept watching, my mind began to think of The Peanut Butter Falcon as Rain Man: Bayou Sojourn, substituting Down Syndrome for autism and a stranger for his brother. You have the outwardly crusty and angry man who is really a softy on the inside, the 'endearing' innocent lost in the woods (or in this case the swamp), the surprisingly not-hostile agent/antagonist, and some magical realism that makes Zak's dreams come true.
As a side note, the folk-style music was a plus.
I think LaBeouf gave it a good actory go as this troubled man that grew to care for his dead brother's substitute, but something about his performance felt too calculated. Johnson did well, but I question Eleanor's intelligence on many levels. I didn't believe someone as educated as Eleanor would fall for the rustic Tyler. I didn't believe she wouldn't think that Zak would hunt down Salt Water Redneck given his intense devotion to him. Then again, she apparently never use Google to find if the school was even open anymore.
Gottsagen was fine in his role. He did well, though one senses he is less playing a character and more playing a variation of himself. For what it's worth, while it is good that people with disabilities get chances to portray themselves, has it been that long since what I think is a stronger, better and more realistic take on Down Syndrome on the television show Life Goes On starring Chris Burke?
Church struck me as too implausible as a major wrestling star. Hawkes and Yelawolf at least seemed to capture the essence of Duncan and Ratboy, the ultimate in poor white trash.
I think The Peanut Butter Falcon did both Tyler and Eleanor poorly. If Tyler had a genuine bond with Zak or if Eleanor was made to be straightforward menace or genuine concern for Zak's well-being as her motives versus somewhere in the middle we might have had more.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is I think too faux-sweet and touching. My view is that too many are seeing something here that is not there. Just like the wild world of wrestling, The Peanut Butter Falcon is calculated, predictable and far too scripted.