A lot of water, legal and otherwise, has passed under the bridge since Paul Reubens last donned the signature crisply tailored gray suit and red bow tie of his indisputably great comic creation, Pee-wee Herman, for a feature-length comedy. His previous Pee-wee feature, Big Top Pee-wee, debuted during the summer of 1988, 28 years ago, and that picture was hardly anyone’s idea of a worthy follow-up to the delirious and hilarious Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)– it certainly wasn’t one I held too dear. When I saw PWBA the night it opened, I was actually admonished by fellow audience members and even the management of a Medford, Oregon movie theater for my hysterics. But though I approached the Big Top three years later with much eagerness, I left it feeling that Pee-wee had somehow ended up getting twisted into a formula that traded that gray suit in for something more akin to a straitjacket. (Continued visits to the Emmy-winning Pee-wee’s Playhouse helped prove that Big Top amounted not to a trend but instead merely a misguided anomaly.)
When Pee-wee’s Big Adventure came out in August of 1985, Reubens was riding the crest of his exuberantly weird (some said off-putting) appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and his Groundlings-rooted stage show, The Pee-wee Herman Show, which ran at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles for five months in 1980 and gained cultural traction as an HBO special. But Pee-wee was hardly yet a household word. So when the strains of Danny Elfman’s buoyant, circus-inflected score helped introduce us to this curious man-child with the trademark half-swallowed “heh-heh” chuckle, the charmingly infantile behavior and the arsenal of well-worn rejoinders (“I know you are, but what am I?!”) which were suddenly funny again yet sounded strangely reassuring coming out of his mouth, we were primed by familiarity with the Pee-wee persona but also ambushed by the subversive energy supplied by Reubens and the movie. And as it happened, the match of Pee-wee’s impish, slightly perverse, but ultimately charming persona with first-time feature director Tim Burton’s sweet-tempered, macabre inventiveness was one composed of all the most elusive and fortuitous elements that every once in a while result in a very special sort of movie nirvana.
Now, after a long Pee-wee-less drought, Reubens and his alter ego are back, and despite the extreme proximity of the titles and the similarity of the advertising, the all-new Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (now streaming on Netflix), like Big Top Pee-wee before it, turns out to be no Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. First question: How could it be? The appeal of the character is no longer grounded in collective surprise at Reubens’ commitment to the world of Pee-wee, but instead in nostalgia, and not just for the candy-colored perspective of children (and children’s television) but for our memories of Pee-wee himself.
The second question is, does it have to be as good as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure? And the answer, happily enough, is no, because even absent Tim Burton’s visual conjurings, and even though Big Holiday sticks close to the template devised by Reubens and cowriters Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol in the first film, the new movie finds its own vein of weirdly-inflected sweetness. Though it may be more conventionally realized, unlike Big Top this new holiday delivers the laughs and continually reminds you, in the most satisfying ways, why Pee-wee Herman was always somebody worth spending time with.
One of the hurdles Pee-wee’s Big Holiday has to clear right away is the fact that, yes, 28 years has passed since we last saw Pee-wee, and even though the character may be an ageless man-child, Paul Reubens, like the rest of us, is not. (Ageless, that is.) Some expert, innovative and not all that uncommon movie magic provided the digital retouching necessary to smooth over the 63-year-old actor into a reasonable facsimile of his Pee-wee prime, and the result admittedly requires a couple of minutes to adjust to. Coincidentally, that’s just about as long as it takes to be charmed anew by the character’s mere presence, as he launches himself through a delightfully Rube Goldbergian routine which propels him to work every day, slinging hash at a diner where everybody in the romantically retro town of Fairville comes for breakfast every morning, where everybody knows Pee-wee’s (and everyone else’s) name.
Pee-wee has been feeling dissatisfied with life of late— the other members of his rock combo, a clean-cut, letterman-jacketed bunch known as the Renegades (Oh, the life Pee-wee lives that we only get incidental peeks at!), are letting the responsibilities of nighttime bowling leagues and late shifts at the grocery store break up the band, and the resulting frustration has Pee-wee feeling the itch to break out of his small-town routine and “live a little.” Enter, on a motorcycle, actor Joe Manganiello, who stops into the diner for a milk shake, forms an immediate and unshakable bond with our hero and suggests that Pee-wee can dust off the hometown blues and get to the work of taking some chances, something Pee-wee, whose entire existence seems preserved in a time capsule filled with days past that never quite existed in the first place, has been till now hesitant to do.
Joe is having a big birthday party in New York City in five days, to which he suggests Pee-wee attend. But rather than strapping his new pal on the back of the bike, Joe wants Pee-wee to make it there on his own, a better opportunity for stretching those wings and taking those chances, to say nothing of getting Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’s road trip structure firmly in place. That voyage itself is a more conventional wrinkle on the epic journey Pee-wee undertook in pursuit of his stolen bike in PWBA, which was inspired in part by, of all things, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. But no matter—it gets our boy moving forward and into the various entanglements, exhilarations and other hijinks that make up this exuberant highway vacation.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is basically a string of episodes that finds Pee-wee running up against all manner of oddball Americana on his way to that Manhattan party, some of which work better than others, most of which rely more on Reubens’ inventiveness than on solid punchlines to get to the laughs. At one point Pee-wee is plopped down in the middle of an epic “farmer’s daughter” scenario which, disappointingly, avoids the inevitable and ends up fizzling out. And Reuben’s reunion with PWBA costar Diane Salinger (one of many blink-and-you-missed-it appearances by Pee-wee veterans) doesn’t result in much either. Salinger was the wistful waitress in the 1985 movie who sat with Pee-wee in the mouth of a giant T. rex mockup, staring at the stars and dreaming out loud of possible futures. Here she returns as a Katherine Hepburn-inflected Amelia Earhart stand-in, a charming and welcome presence as far as she is allowed to go. Unfortunately, she functions largely just to get Pee-wee from point C to point D along his journey, the “D” in this case standing for drenched in raging river rapids. (Spoiler alert: he survives.)
But the occasional fizzle is more than balanced out by the movie’s screwy spirit of optimism, which is, of course, completely a by-product of Reubens’ commitment to and connection with his audience, and some set pieces that work like the Pee-wee gangbusters of old. His antagonistic encounter with a trio of busty Russ Meyer-inspired bank robbers straight out of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is good for a load of big laughs and conceptual chuckles, and the actresses sculpted into pneumatic approximation of Meyer’s cartoony pulchritudinous ideals turn out to be perfectly pitched shrews with hearts of gold. (Their ringleader, Jessica Pohly, might make you think Tura Satana is alive and very well, and Alia Shawkat, as a switchblade-wielding tigress poured into a cashmere sweater who shares our hero’s name, won my heart as easily as she does Pee-wee’s.) The circumstances that have these super vixens stealing his car, then showing up later to snarl at and complicate life further for our hero, comprise a classic case of how, in the Reubens/Pee-wee universe, turning over a nasty rock often reveals a happy surprise of humanity underneath.
And I got the biggest laughs I’ve had over a movie in a long time when one of the Amish folks who end up giving Pee-wee a lift in their horse-drawn buggy stumbles over an unfamiliar F-word and asks him what he does for “fu-un.” At which point Pee-wee pulls a balloon out of his pocket and resurrects one of his goofiest routines, the dizzy-headed inflation of said balloon followed by a hilariously extended squeak-fest (with deliriously silly facial accompaniment) as the air escapes. If you watch the linked clip, notice how the Amish characters milling about in the background behind Pee-wee slowly disappear, only to reappear as the bit’s sublime visual punch line, a moment that in the hands of numerous other sardonically inclined comics might have had a nastier, or at least more predictably ironic inflection, but which here plays out as pure Pee-wee-inspired cheer. That’s the way to freshen up a familiar bit!
But probably the cheer-cheer-cheeriest element of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is Pee-wee’s awed, newly minted friendship with Manganiello which, like Pee-wee’s friendship with the Russ Meyerettes or the Amish, trucks not in ironic barriers or red flags blaring “Obvious, Barely Concealed Subtext!” No, Joe and Pee-wee straight-up bond over their mutual love for a good milk shake and, even better, a root beer barrel chaser (“Only the best candy in the world! It really is!”), and the result is one of the funniest and sweetest, not to mention least self-conscious male-bonding episodes in the history of comedy. Joe, the cool, self-regarding, image-conscious actor, is disarmed immediately when Pee-wee doesn’t seem to know who he is. (Pee-wee butchers his last name in high Herman fashion.) And Reuben’s response to Joe’s listing of his credits is pure bliss– “Certainly you’ve heard of True Blood.” “Uh-uh.” “Magic Mike?” “(chuckles) You’d think so, but no.” Added bonus: my own enjoyment of the scene was enhanced by the fact that before this movie I didn’t know who Joe Manganiello was either!
The two performers are the most unlikely combination of pals, but that’s what makes the joke expand into something more, something resembling the inexplicable essence of true friendship, and that neither of them winks at the audience or does anything to undermine its foundations seems, in this age where no eyebrow seems to go unarched, something approaching nobility. It all comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion when Pee-wee finally arrives in Manhattan but ends up late to Joe’s party (I won’t spoil why), and Joe puts off all his other guests and hides out in the bedroom of his luxury penthouse, distraught that his pal Pee-wee didn’t show up.
But don’t worry, kids– neither Reubens nor Pee-wee would ever stand for sending you out of the theater, or in this case your Netflix queue, with anything less than a smile on your face, and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, as uneven as the holiday journey sometimes is, has barrels full of smiles (root beer barrels!) at the ready. Paul Reubens may have had to have his face digitally tightened up to remind us of the Pee-wee of old (rather than an old Pee-wee), but the unreserved good news is that in 2016 Pee-wee’s high, garrulously anarchic spirit remains gloriously intact and ready to inspire laughter once again, no CGI required.