A film review by Craig J. Koban March 25, 2016

PEE WEE'S BIG HOLIDAY jjj
½

2016, No MPAA Rating, 90 mins.

 

Pee-Wee Herman as Himself  /  Joe Manganiello as Joe Manganiello  /  Alia Shawkat as Bella  /  Jessica Pohly as Pepper  /  Stephanie Beatriz as Freckles

Directed by John Lee  /  Written by Paul Reubens and Paul Rust

ORIGINAL FILM

There’s a moment in PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY that solidifies why the character is such an endearing original.  

It also put a smile on my face that was impossible to wipe off for over 90 minutes. 

Pee Wee (still played by the shockingly ageless Paul Reubens) is in his car and making his very first pilgrimage outside of the quaint and comfy confines of his hometown, the appropriately named Fairville.  Pee Wee doesn’t get out much.  In fact, he appears to have never been on vacation before, let alone outside of his town.  He approaches a controlled intersection, stops, looks up, and in a state of jubilant, child-like glee screams out, “A traffic light!!!  Just like I’ve seen in National Geographic!” 

PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY (a non-theatrically released, Netflix original film) is – much like its titular man-child character – charmingly carefree, joyously sweet natured, and yes, frequently and genuinely hysterical.  Watching the film was like having a sublime antidote pour over me to the puerile and vulgar comedies that wallow in sickeningly mean spirited cynicism.  A week ago I screened a “comedy” that featured a sequence that had its "heroes" sprayed with elephant ejaculate while hiding in another elephant’s vagina...and while enduring that I sheepishly confronted myself and asked, “What the hell is wrong with the movie world in general?”  I felt good about myself while watching PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY.  Not too many “modern” and “progressive” comedies elicit such sensations in me these days.  Yes, poor little Pee Wee does have a knack of getting himself – and others around him – in trouble, but he’s so endlessly appealing as a kind soul that you’re willing to forgive his guiltless indiscretions and naiveté.  

 

 

Of course, Paul Reubens made Pee Wee Herman a relative household name way, way back in the 1980’s with a stage act, a TV series, and multiple movies.  The Tim Burton helmed PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE came out 31 years ago, a fact almost impossible to fathom upon watching PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY.  Reubens is a fairly ripe 63-years-old, but in some ethereal way – either through some incredibly advanced and invisible special effects techniques or the actor’s eerie ability to thwart the aging process – Pee Wee visibly appears trapped in time.  He looks, acts, and talks precisely the same as he did all those years ago, maintaining an infectiously goofy level of excited and boyish frivolity.  Pee Wee may not even be an adult, but rather an inner child forever frozen inside a man’s body.  Rather incredibly considering his advancing years, Reubens triumphantly and successfully returns to his iconic character without missing a beat; it’s almost as if he just stepped off of the set of his last film (1988’s BIG TOP PEE WEE) and just appeared here, ready for action. 

This new film opens with a wonderfully bizarre re-introduction to the character…as he’s having a conversation with a tiny big-eyed extraterrestrial (envisioned with some wonderfully old school animatronics) that may (or may not be) be some sort of a dream.  But of course it’s a dream, seeing as Pee Wee’s wakes up and returns to the land of the living.  His entire wake-up routine – utilizing a startling array of wacky and ingenious props and inventions – is worth the very price of admission (granted, if you actually paid to see this film).  Pee Wee’s real life, alas, is not as colorfully adventurous as his dreams.  He works a fairly menial job as a cook at a local diner in Fairville, a city that looks like its cemented in some sort of strange alter dimension where PLEASANTVILLE-esque 1950’s culture was allowed to continue.  Pee Wee enjoys it nevertheless, but his life is turned upside down when – OMG! – his bandmates from his singing group The Renegades tell him that they must focus on schoolwork more and music practice less. 

This causes Pee Wee to go into panic attack mode.  He simply doesn’t know what to do next.  Fate steps in when “well known actor” Joe Manganiello (played by, yes, Joe himself), cruises into Fairville and stops by Pee Wee’s diner.  Very soon, Pee Wee discovers that both of them share an amazing number of things in common, like a passion for milkshakes, bikes, model making, and root beer barrels (“Best candy in the world!).  Even though, in a rather hysterical bit, Pee Wee has no idea who Joe is, nor can he even remotely pronounce his name, he takes an instant liking to him, which the awfully nice Joe reciprocates.  In an act of narcissistic kindness, Joe invites Pee Wee to his big birthday party in New York (via a ridiculously opulent carded invitation that he just happens to have in his back pocket and hands him) and insists that he attends.  But…but…Pee Wee has never been out of Fairville!  The drama continues as he courageously braves America for a long road trip ahead. 

Tim Burton is not back this time in the director’s chair, which can sometimes be obviously felt throughout PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY, seeing as the film lacks some of his eccentric brand of visual weirdness.  John Lee, though, competently directs the film, and even though he’s not as spirited as an innovative visualist as Burton, his low-key style kind of helps put the spotlight more on Reubens’ performance.  As a comeback vehicle, of sorts, after a very long period of character/series dormancy, this approach is arguably the right one, seeing as Pee Wee’s agreeably outlandish antics is the real star of this film.  It could also be easily said that seeing this film on a small screen via Netflix is somewhat disappointing, leaving it somewhat feeling like it has a demoted direct-to-video vibe throughout.    

Thankfully, PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY is wondrously entertaining in terms of delivering a contagiously delightful madcap romp of the character’s trek across America to the Big Apple.  One thing that has never changed about the character in this effort to rebirth him into a new movie adventures is his infallible ability to celebrate the inherent worth of people and cultures that he’s not familiar with, which is a solid message for young viewers.  Regardless of whether he comes in contact with, in some cases, a desperate traveling salesman, a group of traveling hairstylists, an high society-type heiress, a squad of female bank robbers, or even an Amish community (the latter which features an insanely funny one-take gag showing Pee Wee introducing this culture stuck in the past to the modern wonders of finding amusement in blowing up balloons), Pee Wee's well meaning acceptance of them shows that he’s an fine and upstanding chap. 

Reubens’ undeniable and unstoppable energy solidified my overall enjoyment of this film.  Everything he sees he giddily approaches with the wide-eyed amazement of a toddler.  I mean, nothing impedes his ability to find awe and wonder in the most nonchalant of things he encounters, and he soaks up all of his experiences like a sponge and craves more as the film progresses.  PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY is also benefited by a really self-deprecating performance by Joe Manganiello, who plays a satirized version of himself that’s part badass/juke-box hitting Fonzie, part fanboy/geek that likes cool toys and just about anything with sugar in it.  The film plays up to their under-the-radar homoerotic relationship in multiple running jokes (there’s a positively uproarious fantasy sequence featuring Joe dressed up in his own Pee Wee inspired suit, prancing and dancing around with wicked glee).  For the most part, their mostly innocent bromance has a feel-good tenderness.  Joe’s a very good sport.  He doesn’t even care that Pee Wee has never seen (or has even heard of) MAGIC MIKE

I felt mentally detoxified after seeing PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY.  I can appreciate the unenviable challenge of resurrecting this character after such a long period of movie inactivity, but this new film and Reubens somehow manages to pull it all off with a free-wheeling and inspired casualness that will make die hard fans appreciate it all the more.  Sometimes, characters that wallow in constant self-amusement can be off-putting and irritating.  Not Pee Wee.  Even when he tells a joke regarding how corduroy pillows are making headlines (“Get it? Headlines?!”) and then unstoppably giggles like a schoolgirl at his own punch line…it’s hard not to laugh with and at him.  He sees goodness in just about everything and everyone around him, a trait that’s awfully hard to criticize.  

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