Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 4, 2019)
Despite its title, 2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon involves neither food spreads nor winged predators. Instead, it gives us a quirky character tale.
Born with Down Syndrome, Intellectually Disabled Zak (Zack Gottsagen) dreams of fame as a professional wrestler. To achieve this aim, he flees the residential facility when he lives, as he plans to go to the wrestling school operated by his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).
Given his cognitive and adaptive limitations, this becomes a challenge for him, but he gains assistance along the way. As he wanders on his way, Zak meets low-level criminal Tyler (Shia LaBeouf).
Despite some misgivings, Tyler agrees to help, and the pair progress on their way. Challenges arise, especially when residential facility employee Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) catches up with them.
Though Falcon got great reviews, I avoided it theatrically. I maintain a severe allergy to schmaltzy “inspirational” stories, and this becomes especially true when they involve characters like Zak.
For half my life, I’ve worked with kids who have various cognitive and/or educational disabilities. When I see a movie like Falcon, I fear they’ll get used in a patronizing way as cutesy props and not much else.
To some degree, that becomes the case with Falcon, though not to an extreme. Still, the movie tends to treat his disability as a novelty, as attempts to humanize Zak feel somewhat half-hearted.
Gottsagen does his best, but his cognitive limitations impact his performance skills. What the use of an actual Down Syndrome brings in verisimilitude, it loses in the stiff nature of Gottsagen’s clear struggles to recite the lines.
And that’s where I get back to the gimmicky feel of Falcon. While we’ve seen some solid acting from disabled performers in the past, Gottsagen doesn’t join that club. He brings some warmth and charm to the part but he can’t work with the role’s emotional challenges.
Falcon gets a boost from rest of the cast, at least. In addition to the actors already named, we find talents like Bruce Dern, John Hawkes and Jon Bernthal. All manage to help ground the project, even if their skills remind us of Gottasgen’s restrictions.
At its heart, Falcon fancies itself as a modern-day Mark Twain tale, but instead, it often feels like a riff on Rain Man. We get road trip stories in which a cynical character shepherds and bonds with a cognitively disabled one.
Of course, differences emerge, and Falcon feels more emotionally honest than the manipulative Rain Man. Still, I can’t help but see the similarities, and Falcon fails to find enough character or narrative depth to make it shine.
Those behind Falcon seem to bring good intentions, but the end result feels fairly stale. We get standard feel-good material without much else to create a memorable tale.