DIRECTED BY: TYLER NILSON AND MICHAEL SCHWARTZ/2019
If you distilled Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn“, with a dash of “Tom Sawyer” and then run it through the tone, feel, and aesthetics of the film, Mud, then you’d have a good idea of what awaits you in the all new feel-good drama, The Peanut Butter Falcon. Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s Syndrome who finds himself placed in a nursing home by the state as a matter of convenience, not because of his medical condition. Surrounded by elderly people, Zak makes several attempts to break out of the place where he obviously doesn’t belong, despite how well liked he is by the residents.
Zak’s roommate is Carl (Bruce Dern), a cantankerous former engineer who likes to have a go at Zak daily, but who obviously likes his much younger roommate. Zak’s case worker is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Eleanor has taken a real liking to Zak, and is wise to his constant escape attempts. When Zak isn’t trying to break out, he can be found watching worn out video cassettes of his favorite professional wrestler, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). At the end of the video, The Salt Water Redneck always mentions his wrestling school, inviting everyone to join him in becoming a professional wrestler.
To say that Zak has watched this video a lot would be an understatement. Even Carl and Eleanor almost have it memorized. Zak, who has no real family to speak of, isn’t attempting a jailbreak to be reunited to loved ones. Instead, he is on a quest to find The Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school and fulfill his life-long dream of becoming a professional wrestler.
Following a successful breakout, Zak finds himself on the run where his path crosses with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a man who has found himself on the wrong side of the law more and more, following the death of his brother Mark (Jon Bernthal), with whom he was extremely close. Tyler wants nothing to do with Zak, but Zak’s persistence wears him down. Soon, they are on a cross-state adventure to find The Salt Water Redneck before Tyler heads towards Florida. They’ll have to outrun a few people, along the way, who want Tyler dead, and through their adventures, they’ll find a bond that is much more like a brotherhood.
The cast in The Peanut Butter Falcon is strong and everyone gives strong performances. This is actually one of the best roles I’ve seen Dakota Johnson do, and I hope it means she is shedding some of the typecasting that came with the 50 Shades of Grey films. Here, she has empathy, kindness, and grace that encapsulates the best of a social worker. The only thing I’d criticize is that the script is too quick to make her a love interest for Tyler when her character was so much more interesting when the story had her interacting with both Zak and Tyler and learning from their adventure on how to be a more complete person in own life. The love interest angle seemed to flatten some of that.
Zack Gottsagen is really humorous in his role of Zak and gets a lot of the laughs as his character knows how to perfectly manipulate Tyler and get under his skin. Both Tyler and Zak grow from their mutual relationship, and LaBeouf gives one of his best performances to date.
The wide shots of Zak and Tyler on the open water, sailing a homemade raft, or even being baptized in a river, borrow heavily from some of the tropes and cinematography of Mud. It was obviously an influence in the more realistic, and gritty tone that the film presents throughout, even if the script bounces from rural-realism to whimsical adventure without a true consistency. The effect of this is that the film feels under-cooked a bit, even though the cast elevates it and presents a final product that will largely satisfy most audiences. It is hard to lift the Capt. Insane-o plot from Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy, put it into a Mark Twain-like vehicle, and create an odd-couple-like road adventure, but The Peanut Butter Falcon mostly manages to pull it off.