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Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Peanut Butter Falcon

*** (out of ****)

Here is the heartwarming story of an unlikely friendship, and for once, it seems quite accurate to label the friendship in question “unlikely.” The Peanut Butter Falcon is many things, but it is primarily a buddy road-trip comedy that hybridizes itself with a coming-of-age drama, a romance, and, at the very edges of its story, a crime thriller. One of these doesn’t quite fit with the other two, obviously, and we’ll get to it nearer the end of this review. The distraction of that element in its tonal mixture is small, though, so the experiment is at least two-thirds successful. That means we have a pretty good movie on our hands.

The film primarily follows two characters who find themselves in each other’s company at exactly the wrong moment for one of them and probably the wrong moment for the other. The former, who finds the other has stowed away on his getaway vehicle, is Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who works at a fishing dock but has gotten himself involved in petty crime, both as a way to make ends meet and as a way to pay off a couple of goons. After setting fire to the goons’ equipment stock, Tyler steals a boat to get away. His goal is to make it to Florida, where he will settle into a comfortable life as a fisherman and tour guide.

Keeping time with this scheme is another, very similar one, had by Zack (Zack Gottsagen). He is an aspiring professional wrestler, watching a single tape featuring “The Salt-Water Redneck” (Thomas Haden-Church) dozens of times per day and dreaming of escaping his nursing home. Zack isn’t elderly, but he does have Down syndrome, his family having abandoned him for being “retarded” when he was a child. At the home, the only people who seem to care about him are his cranky roommate Carl (Bruce Dern) and stressed nurse/social worker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson).

His desperation leads to a late-night escape through the bars guarding his window. Hiding on Tyler’s boat, the two form something of a strange bond, with Tyler agreeing to drop him at the wrestling school owned by the famous athlete from the videotape because it’s on the way to Tyler’s own ultimate destination. The problem, of course, is that Tyler is a wanted man – not only by police indirectly (They’re searching for the arsonist responsible for the fire), but also by those goons, Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), who have employed Tyler to fill in the gap left in their operation by his late brother Mark (played in wordless flashbacks by Jon Bernthal).

The stuff with the goons essentially exists to tell us information about Tyler that is entirely related to the plot (which also includes an attempt to establish a sweet-enough, kind of slight romance between Tyler and Eleanor when the latter catches up to the pair during her search for Zack). If the screenplay by directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz indicates anything, it’s that the film is better as a loosey-goosey road-trip movie, anchored by the performances from LaBeouf, who brings an appropriate sadness to Tyler, and Gottsagen, an actor who really has Down syndrome and plays the role with complete naturalism. The Peanut Butter Falcon has a generous spirit and a lazy-day feel that completely fit the nature of the story being told. In other words, it’s a nice story told well.
(Review by Joel Copling)

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