|'The Peanut Butter Falcon': Wrestling With Bigotry|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
04:23PM / Thursday, August 29, 2019
It is big-hearted, pleasantly pie-in-the-sky save for some routine tumult in the climax, and provides a good service in dramatizing the realities of living with the genetic disorder known as Down syndrome. But my problem as I viewed "The Peanut Butter Falcon" is that I was more fascinated by the lead actor, Zack Gottsagen, than by the story.
You see, Gottsagen does indeed have Down syndrome. And his starring role in this Twain-like adventure yarn about a
man institutionalized because of his Down syndrome who takes it on the lam to claim his destiny as a professional wrestler, is no small watershed, either for cinema or for others possessing that third copy of chromosome 21.
Thus, in this accomplishment, Gottsagen flourishes his acting chops and more than tacitly assumes an unofficial ambassadorship. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this feature-length film speaks educational volumes about the disorder that is ostensibly its cause-célèbre.
Which is why it is recommended here for anyone who might benefit from a bit of enlightenment and humanitarian understanding.
But that said, if an actor with the usual amount of chromosomes were to play Zak, the experience might be just as elucidating, but hardly as intriguing. As an analogous example, while Dustin Hoffman wasn't an autistic savant like his title character in "Rain Man" (1988) is controversially speculated to be, the script and production standards of director Barry Levinson's multi-award-winning film are superb. And as such, it is both studiously informative and highly entertaining, albeit not groundbreaking.
The unique genuineness of "The Peanut Butter Falcon" is apparent in every frame. It is the proof of the pudding as Zack exacts Zak — proving he can act.
And so here's the big however. Writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz's script isn't especially novel, places a real world problem in a semi-fantasy environment, and alas, lacks the plot curveballs to keep it from being crowd-pleasingly predictable. Therefore, if put under the microscope in a three-credit film appreciation course at dear Olde Ivy Film Criticism College, the conundrum to be mulled, written in big letters on the blackboard by professor Halberstadter, would be, "Is this creative entertainment or progressive civilization improvement?"
It is at very least the last. I mean, c'mon. Have you read the news? We need all the altruism we can get. It wasn't that long ago when folks with Down and a bunch of other disorders were randomly tossed into Bedlam-like facilities. The entertainment value, therefore, which begs a definition of the term itself, depends in great part on how much of its goodwill translates to amusement for the individual viewer.
That said, there is an undeniable magnetism achieved by the protagonist. Far-fetched or doable, who would pooh-pooh the dream of a fellow traveler the way the administrator at the old-age home that constrains Zak does? Even Dakota Johnson's Eleanor, the angelic social worker directly in charge of Zak, while humoring his Quixotic determination, doesn't believe for a second that he could achieve his goal, let alone survive without supervision. Fact is, other than his curmudgeonly but supportive senior citizen roomie, Karl, splendidly etched in little more than a cameo by Bruce Dern, no one takes his visions of grappling glory seriously. And quite frankly, we wonder ourselves.
Yet if you choose to buy in, you'll agree that for every great passion, fictional or real, there is an afflatus just waiting to spur you on. All you have to do is to be open enough in heart and soul to accept them.
Hence it only follows that in what becomes a road & river film after Zak breaks loose, our would-be ring hero crosses paths with and forms an accommodation with the at-first-begrudging Tyler, a small-time outlaw smartly conjured by Shia LaBeouf. Ah, nothing like roughing it in the wild outdoors with a potential kindred spirit: scrounging for food, swapping stories, rationalizing your lifestyle and fantasizing of great expectations. And if a pretty gal like Eleanor, who's been desperately hunting for her lost charge, adds a bit of romantic interest to the bucolic scenery, what's not to like?
Adding to the potpourri of quirky circumstances whenever literature ventures a meditation on damaged and/or lost souls who merge their destinies, there is the idea of the imagined Shangri la.
In both "The Big Street" (1942), featuring Lucille Ball in her greatest dramatic performance, and "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), the panacea is the healthful climes of Florida. Here, Zak's idea of nirvana is a bit north of there, in the small southern town where Thomas Haden Church's Saltwater Redneck runs his rassling academy.
Now, I won't say if Zak ever gets to meet his idol. Simply suffice it to note that the lessons to be learned from searching for life's silver lining are all perfunctorily in place. While brimming with feel-good, no holds barred sentiment, "The Peanut Butter Falcon" is more edifying than artistic.
"The Peanut Butter Falcon," rated PG-13, is a Roadside Attractions release directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz and stars Zack Gottsagen, Shia Le Boeuf and Dakota Johnson. Running time: 93 minutes