Cinema history is thick with examples of the buddy comedy. It has become a genre unto itself. Whether it is two cops, like Lethal Weapon, or enemies turned friends in White Men Can’t Jump, the formula is tried and true.But the best of these are not merely pure entertainment, but also affect the audience on a deeper level. When they are done well, a great buddy comedy focuses on the relationship more than plot mechanics. Funny people in funny situations are entertaining enough, but not enough for a truly memorable journey. Luckily, 2020 offers viewers one of those perfectly balanced buddy comedies in The Peanut Butter Falcon.
This also marks the beginning of the Shia LaBeouf recovery tour, with Honey Boy also releasing next month. In The Peanut Butter Falcon he plays Tyler, a struggling fisherman on the run. To complicate things further, he meets up with Zak (Zack Gottsagen) a young man with Down Syndrome who has escaped from an assisted living facility, all the while being tracked by his social worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). After a rocky start, Tyler agrees to help Zak travel to a wrestling camp run by his hero, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).
But despite Shia being arguably the “star” of the film, this is absolutely Zak’s story. This is, of course, a risk, but one that seriously pays off. He is funny, endearing, and truly charismatic. The relationship between these two is heartfelt, without ever being cloying and obvious. The film smartly uses an unspoken relationship between Tyler and his own brother (Jon Bernthal) to frame the reasoning for treating Zak with more respect and autonomy than anyone else in his life. The simplicity of Tyler questioning Zak about why he cannot be a “good guy” is among the most moving moments you will see on a screen this year.
The Peanut Butter Falcon toes a very interesting line, in examining both the power of words and how we actually back that up by treating people in the right ways. It makes the case that it is not enough to simply not say the word that starts with the letter R. If we continue to treat those different from us in infantilizing ways, it makes no difference how we do or don’t use a label. This is a surprisingly risky moment in a buddy comedy, but it comes off genuine and radically kind to see a gruff character defend a disabled man in such a direct manner.
This would be a very good movie by any metric, and by any director, but even more impressive is that this is the director’s (Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz) first full length feature. Their confidence behind the camera is apparent as the focus on the scenery and the road ahead balance with whip smart dialogue between the two leads, as written by said directors. Speaking of the script, it seems to have just enough of everything. There is a bit of romance, some surprisingly alarming moments of danger (provided by the always excellent John Hawkes), and even a bit of magical realism (or is it? You tell me).
All of this adds up to a type of movie that we rarely get to see in the cinema nowadays. There are no computer animated action spectacles, no mega celebrities, and no contrived happy endings topped with a bow. Instead, it is a journey worth having, a journey in which we all learn and change by the end. The Peanut Butter Falcon truly shows the restorative power of being seen and heard by friends. Even if good guys get left too, when we have one another, we can do almost anything.
Directors: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz
Cast: Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson
Writers: Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz