“THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON” My rating: B (Opens wide on Aug. 23) 93 minutes | PG-13

Published August 22, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

So adept are the makers of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” at provoking laughter and tears that it may take a few hours for the rosy glow to wear off, at which point the viewer realizes he has fallen for a narrative con job.

But it’s such an effective con that most of us will shrug off any flickers of resentment in order to prolong the experience’s many satisfactions.

This feature debut from the writing/directing team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz opens in a retirement home where one resident stands out.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is 22-year-old with Downs syndrome.  Recently orphaned and deemed incapable of caring for himself, this unfortunate ward of the state (in this case, Georgia) has been warehoused among  dementia-plagued seniors.

Sounds grim, but the screenplay and direction immediately announce that it’s okay to laugh. Early on Zak elicits the cooperation of his fellow “inmates” to stage a jail break.  It’s short lived because even running at top speed Zak is hopelessly slow.

Meanwhile Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) mans a one-man fishing boat working the Outer Banks. He’s a bearded outcast not above raiding the crab pots of other fishermen; after starting a fire that destroys a rival’s precious equipment, Tyler finds himself on the lam.

“…Falcon” throws together  Zak — who has run away wearing only a pair of tidy whities and dreams of becoming a professional wrestler  — and the fugitive Tyler, who slowly warms to his new companion’s hilarious innocence.

This novel twist on the buddy movie formula is enhanced by their mode of transportation. The two assemble a raft with the intention of sailing it down the coast to elude their pursuers.  References to Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim are inescapable.

The ante is upped even further by the arrival of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a staffer at the retirement home who has been dispatched to retrieve the errant Zak and instead finds  herself accompanying the two on their voyage. In short order the trio become a sort of Holy Family on a flight into Egypt.

There are about a gazillion ways in which this enterprise could go off the rails. It doesn’t.

The performances are terrific — especially from LaBeouf, who proved his serious-actor bona fides in 2014’s “The Fury” and here masterfully navigates Tyler’s metamorphosis from selfish swamp rat to caring guardian. His goofy repartee with the childlike Zak is disarming, sweet and often uproariously funny.

Johnson is both amusing and sincere in expressing Eleanor’s torn loyalties, and the role nicely mines her girl-next-door aura.

Newcomer Gottsagen is utterly convincing as Zak, although it’s just about impossible to figure out where the character begins and the performer ends. Could be Method Acting on an astonishingly immersive level.

And there’s remarkable depth in the supporting cast, which features such familiar faces as Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes and former wrestling stars Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

By the way, the film’s title refers to the goofy wrestling persona Zak invents for his big debut in the ring.

It’s only in retrospect that the film’s nagging narrative shortcomings rear their heads. We learn that Eleanor is not an employee of the home but rather a volunteer and that, in fact, she is wealthy. Convenient, huh?

In wordless flashbacks we see that Tyler blames himself for the death of his beloved brother in a car wreck.  But knowing that really doesn’t excuse his antisocial asshole behavior early in the story.

Despite its realistically rendered settings (the excellent cinematography is by Nigel Buck), “The Peanut Butter Falcon” borders on surreal fantasy. That it works at all is amazing; that it works as wonderfully as it does is miraculous.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.