A folksy tale about two misfit friends floating downriver on a raft, The Peanut Butter Falcon tastes a lot like Huckleberry Finn. But its odyssey-like plot – in which characters are seeking a new home while also searching for something they lack – also resembles The Wizard of Oz. Following that metaphor to its logical conclusion, the new dramedy by Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz has heart and courage – thanks to its casting of an actor with Down syndrome – but not much brains.
Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man confined to a nursing home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But unlike most of the employees at the facility, he sees his Down syndrome as no more than a slight inconvenience. And he has a dream. A big, weird dream. He wants to be a professional wrestler. So with the help of his only friend, Carl (Bruce Dern in an oddly brief turn), he breaks out.
As he starts his strange journey toward what he believes is a wrestling school run by a local legend nicknamed the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), he meets another runaway, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who has fled town after torching the property of a fellow fisherman (John Hawkes, in a mostly wasted role). Zak and Tyler form an unlikely bond, lending the simple story a refreshing sweetness and a few comedic moments. But then the script stumbles badly.
Enter Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who was the only employee of Zak’s nursing home to show him genuine affection. Though she also realizes the home isn’t the best place for him (or herself), she has been tasked with finding him before her boss is forced to call the police. But her involvement with Zak and Tyler, not to mention her romantic attraction to the latter, stretches believability past the breakwaters. I guess nothing kindles romance like a stinky fugitive.
Though Johnson is surprisingly watchable, her character’s lack of motivation is palpable. And after 93 minutes of LaBeouf’s mumbling and a performance by Gottsagen that misses the dramatic mark too often, Falcon morphs from a charming, funny parable about overcoming one’s disabilities to a large helping of southern-fried ridiculousness.
This is the first theatrically released feature by Nilson and Schwartz, and they have at least shown they have something interesting to say. But Peanut Butter is just too hard to swallow.