THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON – MARK TWAIN MEETS ST. AUGUSTINE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Delightful loose retelling of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with “shades” of St. Augustine’s philosophical wisdom.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up as, while there is no sexual content, the film contains some rough language, and brief scenes of violence and tension. Also, younger kids would probably be bored with the slow and thoughtful pace of the story.

LONG TAKE:

Some reviewers have noted the similarities in the The Peanut Butter Falcon to both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, especially Finn’s trip down the Mississippi with the run away slave, Jim. And while this is true, this aspect of the debut feature length script, as brilliantly and simply co-written and co-directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, inspired in part as a love letter to the people of the Outer Banks, is only the superficial structure to a story with far deeper and more complex theological implications.

St. Augustine once said: Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love, and the future to His Providence. The Peanut Butter Falcon is the embodiment of this lesson as it brings to life three unusual but very relatable people who collide in one of the most charming and delightful movies I have seen in a long time.

Tyler, namesake of the co-author, played by Shia LaBeouf, is a darker version of Huckleberry Finn‘s Jim. Tyler is a walking guilt trip, desperately in need of mercy, an unhappy man with a tragic history looking to punish himself for the regrets in his life. He is the only one for which we see flashbacks, underscoring Tyler’s obsession with the past. An unsuccessful fisherman, he is angry with the world, especially himself and runs away from his responsibilities, one step ahead of justice for his petty and vengeance-inspired crimes as well as the rough and dangerous men who he has infuriated.

But there is also a blunt honesty about the way he treats his fellow man. In Act 5 of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle rebukes her bombastic tutor Henry Higgins, complaining that the manners of Higgins’ friend Colonel Pickering are better than Higgins’ manners because:  “He [Pickering] treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.” To which Higgins retorts: “And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.” There is a bit more than a little of Henry Higgins in The Peanut Butter Falcon’s Tyler.

Tyler is the best role of LaBeouf’s career to date. His character looks at the world with sad eyes but squarely. When Zak, to garner a bit of sympathy, announces to Tyler that he has Down Syndrome, Tyler tells him he doesn’t care. And Tyler means it. With gruff respect for his new tag-along companion, Tyler genuinely does not care one way or the other that Zak has “special needs”, but treats Zak the way he does everyone, including a nervous grocery clerk, the blind preacher who gives them shelter, the lovely Eleanor, the man who gives him a hitch, the employer who has just fired him – all with the same respect – meeting everyone at eye level, not caring what they think of him,but offering each a measure of decency the best way he knows how.

Zak, the main character in this film with the quirky title, is a wonderful modern day Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn. Brave and adventurous, Zak even spends much of the first parts of his journey, like Tom and Huck, barefooted, walking down country roads with his ersatz “Jim”. Zak had been stuck in a nursing home as, abandoned by his family, no other place would take him. But Zak is also the personification of unconditional love, a sweet soul with an indefatigably happy outlook on life, who lives in every present moment with trust in God, unbounded enthusiasm and an open heart. Played brilliantly by a young man who actually has Down’s Syndrome, the clever and adorable Zack Gottsagen, some of whose clever ad-libs were included in the script, is charm personified.

The chemistry between the three leads is obvious both on and off screen. Gottsagen’s co-stars LeBoeuf and Johnson, in the “Making of” featurette HERE and interviews like the ones HERE, and HERE, and HERE, express what seems to be genuine fondness for their new fellow thespian, as well as admiration for his natural acting abilities and instincts.

The film’s titular Peanut Butter Falcon, Zak, also looks squarely and honestly at the world, but sees it very differently from Tyler. More than anything in the world Zak wants to be a professional wrestler like Salt Water Redneck, (Thomas Hayden Church) whose videos Zak watches ceaselessly with his friend and endlessly patient roommate, Carl (Bruce Dern – classic veteran of stage and screen whose now elderly and experienced presence I have been delighted to see cropping up in such divergent films as Chappaquidick and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Zak flees the nursing home in pursuit of his dream.

Eleanor stands in the place of Tom’s Aunt Polly. Like the Biblical Martha, Eleanor is worried and upset about many things, fearful of the bad things that can happen to the people about and for whom she cares, not the least of which is the “flight risk” Zak, as this escape is not his first. Eleanor is a young widow who spends her time volunteering at the elderly home. She worries over Zak like a mother hen, fretting exclusively about his future, blinding herself to Zak’s immediate needs and manifest abundant abilities. When Zak goes missing, Eleanor strikes out on the seemingly impossible task to find Zak and return him to what she believes is the best place for him – the safety of her ever watchful eye.

The actress who played Eleanor looked extremely familiar, though, in a rarity for me, I could not place her. Then I looked her up in the vast electronic cinematic library that is us.imdb.com only to find she had been in a trilogy for which her face was plastered everywhere, but which movies I had not seen. Dakota Johnson made her name as the notorious co-star of the rather infamous Shades of Gray films. But fear not, as my husband wittily suggested I assure you, this is NOT 50 Shades of Peanut Butter. However, there IS  a completely innocent but rather amusing Easter egg reference to the Gray films for those familiar with this portion of Ms. Johnson’s repertoire.  Assessing her filmography, I believe this is likely the best performance of her career and certainly the nicest movie she has ever been in.

Duncan, (John Hawkes who has appeared in such varied features as the comedy TV show Psyche, as the Union colonel Robert Latham in Lincoln, and the frighteningly abusive husband in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), is most obviously this version of Tom Sawyer‘s Injun Joe. Duncan hunts relentlessly for Tyler and, by extension, his companions, bent on revenge.

Together the three friends – Tyler, Eleanor and Zak – embark upon a Twain-ian adventure which literally places them, for a while, on a raft down a river.

The cinematography is like a stylized home movie. Beautifully filmed in Savannah, Georgia, making best use of the natural biodiversities from man-tall grasses and long stretches of sandy beaches to inviting swimming holes and Spanish Moss-covered oaks, much of the story is set along the Outer Banks – a series of barrier islands and spits along the east coast of North Carolina and Virginia, as our characters make their way to Florida.

The music is very reminiscent of O Brother, Where Art Thou? – a mellow  expression of Southern culture featuring a soundtrack of banjo picking and fiddle music, with folk songs and Gospel tunes sprinkled throughout, like stars in the black velvet sky of a summer night.

The language is occasionally quite rough, but not gratuitously so, and certainly in keeping with the customs of the financially precarious crab fishermen who live from hand to mouth on the outskirts of civilization, in the wilds of Georgia.

There is no sexual content aside from the underweared attire of the purely innocent Zak’s escape ensemble, and a chaste kiss between our other two protagonists.

So go enjoy this wonderful expression of both a modern Mark Twain tale and the personification of St. Augustine’s admonition to seek God’s mercy, love and Providence,  as seen through the eyes and adventures of a very special Huckleberry Finn and his two companions.

DEADPOOL – A MOVIE I WISH I COULD RECOMMEND

SHORT TAKE:

Airplane  meets Marvel.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Unfortunately, in all good conscience, I can not recommend this movie to anyone.

LONG TAKE:

I once heard that the definition of mixed emotions was seeing your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your new car. As I happen to be a mother-in-law I’m not especially fond of that definition though I can understand the intent of demonstrating intense conflicting emotions. I think a better one for me, as an avid fan of superhero movies, is watching Deadpool and its sequel back to back.

First off, Deadpool is not for children. Do NOT take children to see Deadpool. Fritz the Cat was an obscene animated short shown at "art" houses back in the ‘70s. Deadpool is no more for children than Fritz the Cat was. Do not take children to see Deadpool. Do not take teenagers to see Deadpool. Do I make myself clear?

Airplane, which came out in 1980 took every cliche of the disasters happening in a man made construction genre (yes, that was a thing in the ‘70's and ‘80's – Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Airport ‘75, Airport-Concorde, Towering Inferno), and played them for all they were worth – singing nuns, relationship conflicts which were resolved by the disaster, sick children being transported to a hospital, bad weather, hero with traumatic backstory. It was hilarious because it was true – all the movies capitalized on these themes and variations with predictable continuity. (FYI – The ‘90's and 2000's went after natural phenomena – Twister, Dante’s Inferno, Volcano, The Core, Armaggedon).

By the same token, Deadpool does the same thing with the superhero genre: reluctant hero, tragic love story, kids in danger, time travelers, opponents joining up to fight a common enemy, strange super powers and fighting – lots and lots of fighting. Only instead of the sanitized variety, it is quite graphic. So is the language. And the sexuality. And the nudity. And the blasphemy..

Deadpool started in the comics about a mercenary who gets cancer and is given a kind of Captain America super serum which makes him unkillable. Deadpool was never meant to take itself seriously but is the Monty Python of superhero movies. Ryan Reynolds plays the title character to the hilt.

This super… person who by his own admission is no one's idea of a hero… and by his own description is a bad guy who gets paid to kill worst guys than he is, is also very funny. He’s snarky and opinionated and comments constantly TO the audience breaking the fourth wall more than Groucho Marx did. Deadpool has much to commend it. It is well-acted, cleverly written, and has many admirable themes.

On the other hand – and here I’m beginning to feel like the conflicted Jewish patriarch, Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof – it is gratuitously gory with humans "splating" onto billboards and heads being chopped off. It is extremely sexual with but a paper thin line between some of the scenes and what used to be considered an "X" rating. It is profane in the worst way, sporting every way to insult God and the human body that the imagination can provide.

BUT…… while I was genuinely shocked at the level of sexual activity, profanity, and graphic violence in both the first Deadpool origin story and this sequel it is hard to hate a movie which is so very self-aware that even the credits include such titles as Moody Teenager, CGI Character, and Overpaid Tool. Ergo my dilemma.

Deadpool makes fun of everything, including itself, from Basic Instinct to the most recent Avengers movie of which it is almost in the same universe, both franchises being Marvel.

I always try to judge movies based upon their genre and intent so want to be fair to Deadpool, especially keeping in mind that Deadpool has never advertised itself as anything except an adult parody of superhero movies.

I cannot help but think of the Biblical parable of the two sons, one of whom is disobedient despite his initial verbal assurances and the other who says he will not do his father's will but then goes and does it anyway. Deadpool is the latter.

For example, although the sexuality in the Deadpool origin story is fairly graphic, it is between two people who are monogamous and fully intend to be married, have children, and start a family. This, frankly, is far healthier then your average James Bond movie where the sexual relationships are less visually intense but extremely casual, polygamous, and intended to be very short-term. 

I was genuinely offended by the blasphemous language, yet the actions of those same characters were often Christian – self-sacrificing, demonstrating mercy, seeking to help others to redemption, and aimed at protecting children from those who would take advantage of them, even when those children posed a danger to the heroes trying to save them, which is a whole lot more than I can say for more "acclaimed" movies like Blockers and Call Me By Your Name which tried to push pedophilia into the mainstream.

While I was offended by implications insulting to the Church – such as the headmaster at an abusive school using Bible quotes to justify his actions, or Deadpool, the character, casually comparing himself to Jesus – Deadpool, the movie, never seriously calls the existence of God or Jesus into question as movies like the Dan Brown series do. As a matter of fact, there is a moment when Deadpool is asked if there had ever been someone who was 100% altruistic and he replies "Jesus Christ". It goes by very fast and I had to have it pointed out to me, but that’s a lot more respect than movies like Dogma or Angels and Demons has for the Church.

While it is faint praise to say a movie is not terrible because of what it does not do, Deadpool also has the positive attributes of actively exercising the virtues of self-sacrifice, mercy, family, and marriage.

I can stand the violence as it's mostly cartoonish, I can even wince past most of the sexuality as it's between two consenting adults who intend not only to get married but to have children. However, what I found most offensive was the frequent verbal and referential blasphemies throughout. Sadly, this was the point at which Tevye would have had to have said, "No, there is no other hand."

So for all of its virtues, there is too much, if you’ll excuse the pun, DEAD weight on the other side of the scale for me to me give it a recommendation, even for the older crowd.