Most road stories, fact or fiction, end up sounding like tall tales. After the hubbub died down upon Odysseus’ violent return home, even the neighbors in Ithaca probably thought, “A cyclops? That’s really what he told them?”
As a construct, the road loosens the bonds of narrative storytelling. After all, its resulting structure can be as simple as a straight line, sometimes turning into a cranky critic’s joke about plot-heavy movies: “and then this happens, and then this happens, and then this…”
Ideally, the zaniness of our heroes meeting blind prophets, druggies and tireless villains is all for the sake of character-building, which is where the South Coast wrestling odyssey The Peanut Butter Falcon can’t hold its own. In a 90-minute buddy movie pairing an escaped ward of the state (Zack Gottsagen) and destitute crabber (Shia LaBeouf), every motion to a new sub-plot or campfire conversation has a mandate to inform their characters. Instead, the new film from Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz tries to skate by on charm, on chemistry between actors that crackles on the surface but remains almost completely compartmentalized on deeper levels.
For all its sensitivity toward a protagonist with Down syndrome, The Peanut Butter Falcon falters most noticeably when it can’t imagine Zak’s inner life. Granted, to do so would be a feat the movies almost never accomplish when it comes to characters with disabilities. Still, it’s telling that once Zak escapes the North Carolina nursing home where he’s fallen through the cracks of the state system the movie turns most of its attention to Tyler (LaBeouf), a scruffy young fisherman who may well be suffering mental illness the movie doesn’t care to notice. Pay no mind to his penchant for stealing, burning and boozing; Peanut Butter Falcon is the kind of movie where one good cry is sufficient to suggest Tyler is over his foibles. As for why Zak’s pursuant caseworker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) would ever look twice at Tyler romantically, well, I’ve got a cyclops story I’d like to sell you.
What will likely make The Peanut Butter Falcon (Zak’s wrestling pseudonym, by the way) an easy Friday night rental, if not a box office success, is the acting. Somehow, this bit of Sundance-core lured Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal and Thomas Haden Church on board for bit parts. As the gritty wrestling oracle—the Saltwater Redneck—who sparks Zak’s quest, Haden Church is particularly excellent. Like LaBeouf, he commits to a mumbling, brutish melancholy when stationary. In turn, we deeply want them to shake it off, to start moving, to hit the highway the movie lays out before them.
Still, there may be a fatal flaw in all this ambitious casting. Positioning LaBeouf, a movie star perpetually trying to recapture his upswing, across from Gottsagen often lets the undertaking of foregrounding a developmentally disabled hero off the hook. As a Hollywood inevitability, we end up focusing on Tyler: his dead brother, his sudden and surprisingly capable flirtations with Eleanor, his lythe torso, his raw abilities as a caretaker. These are the movie’s least plausible features and only serve to make Zak seem less plausible himself. Why not examine what the 22-year-old with Down syndrome can and can’t do on his own before pairing him with an idealized soul sailer who can’t do one thing right in North Carolina but presumes (on our behalf, too) that Jupiter, Florida holds his salvation?
It’s like Schwartz and Nilson have unwittingly invented a character who prevents us from seeing Zak clearly, not clearer. It’s Eleanor, after all, who wants to make sure her charge has an apple when he needs it, who wants to know what’s wrong with Zak’s sore ankle, who has a knowledge of the potential care options for Zak, limited though they may be. Reconciling those legitimate concerns with the ineffable power of the quixotic mission would be a far more humane challenge for the film. But it wouldn’t have the sizzle and snap of two bros executing a secret handshake.
Thus, it’s tempting, even suggested, to wipe the slate clean and say The Peanut Butter Falcon is just a movie with a lot of heart. But that’s not quite right. What it has—however thin, contrived, and ridiculous—is movie appeal.