Review: 'Pee-Wee's Big Holiday' is a gentle delight, both new and familiar
A quick note: my computer finally gave up the ghost last week, and I’ve spent the past five or so days scrambling to get back up and running. I’ve never gone this long without posting at HitFix, not since we began the site, and it’s a disconcerting feeling to just watch pop culture flow by without having the tools be part of the conversation. It’s amazing how ingrained it is at this point, and even when I’m working as hard as I can, I still always feel like there’s more that I’d like to write and publish than I’m able to actually accomplish.
Case in point: I was hoping to publish this review last Friday night after my sons joined me and my girlfriend for an evening built around the Netflix premiere of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, directed by John Lee. One of the things that excited me when they made the announcement about Lee as director is that he’s got a history of pretty wild conceptual comedy. I love his TV work. I think he’s been part of some of the most interesting and vital American comedy of the last five or ten years, working on Wonder Showzen, Inside Amy Schumer, and Broad City, among other things. There’s a whole generation of guys who helped make the really strange and vibrant TV comedy for channels like Adult Swim and Comedy Central who are making the jump to features now, and they seem hungry for it, ready and more than able.
In some ways, Paul Lee is in the position Tim Burton was when he made Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. They’re making the jump into features by putting their spin on an already established character. What’s smartest about the script by Paul Reubens and Paul Rust is the way it once again reinvents the world where Pee-Wee Herman lives. It’s not a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse movie, and it’s not a direct sequel to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure or Big-Top Pee-Wee, and as a result, there’s that same sense of exploration and play as we get a look at the weird world where Pee-Wee seems to fit perfectly. That’s what I love most when Pee-Wee Herman gets it right, as he does here; that sense of Pee-Wee’s world view somehow infecting the entire world around him. Even the craziest and scariest corner of a Pee-Wee Herman world is fairly benign and ultimately good-hearted. These are gentle, charming films, and they espouse a generally optimistic view of other people.
This time out, Pee-Wee has spent his whole life in the same small town, and we learn that the one time he tried to leave, he was traumatized. When Joe Manganiello (playing Joe Manganiello) comes to town, he and Pee-Wee become immediate best friends. He invites Pee-Wee to come to his birthday party in New York City five days later, and he dares Pee-Wee to do it as a road trip so he’ll see the real America. “Live a little” becomes Pee-Wee’s new mantra, and he sets off on another rambling series of encounters with crazy characters in an America that only exists in the head of Paul Reubens. It is almost supernatural how well he’s able to still inhabit this character who is, after all, meant to be an eternal little boy. At the end of the film, when there are news reports about “a little boy stuck in a well,” it made me crack up all over again because it’s so utterly unremarkable to anyone in the movie. They all just accept that Pee-Wee is a boy, and that’s no big deal. It’s also nice to see some of the ensemble players from Pee-Wee’s earlier films show up here in new roles. Lynne Marie Stewart was such a key player as Miss Yvonne, and she is almost unrecognizable here as Jimmy, the lady at the roadside snake farm. Diane Salinger, who played Simone in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, shows up here as a sort of deranged take on Katherine Hepburn and the gangly society women she often played. And while that kind of casting and a general return to the sort of innocent world that Pee-Wee creates could make you feel nostalgic, this doesn’t just lean on our appreciation of things that we’ve already enjoyed. It tells its own story, and it does so without any ties to any other Pee-Wee incarnation.
One of the unexpected delights of the film is just how weird the movie version of Joe Manganiello is, and more than ever, I think this guy is more than we’ve seen from the movies he’s been in so far. His work in the Magic Mike films, and particularly in the sequel, and his work here hints at someone willing to tweak his own image. He may look like a Hollywood superhero, but he seems to have a deep wellspring of giddy weirdness that has hardly been tapped in his work so far. He and Pee-Wee turn out to be kindred souls, and it’s delightful watching the two of them play scenes together. Manganiello has fun teaching Pee-Wee to say his last name or bonding with him over their shared love of root-beer barrels, and the two of them sharing their dreams in slow-motion Spanish is just plain weird, but it all feels so charming and unforced that it makes sense in its own completely nonsensical way. That’s what I like about the film… nothing here makes any sort of thematic or literal sense, but it feels like it does because of Pee-Wee. By now, we’ve come to understand what place he holds in his imagined worlds, and how he sees people. One of the great pop culture turnabouts is the way we’ve collectively agreed to get over the “scandal” of the early ‘90s. Thank god. It was an overreaction at the time, but I think it’s what he wanted. Before he was caught in that movie theater, I used to deal with Reubens semi-regularly. He was a customer at Dave’s Video, the laserdisc store where I worked in the early ‘90s, and it was clear that he was doing everything he could to distance himself from the character. Seeing him embrace Pee-Wee and how much people love the character has been terrific fun, and this film is positively overflowing with that exuberant sense of invention that made Pee-Wee such a delight in the first place. Tim Orr’s photography, Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, and the way Dan Butts and Lindsey Moran have brought the world to life all combine to create something new and familiar at the same time, which is exactly what makes Pee-Wee such an enduring creation. While it’s doubtful any film could match the weird giddy energy that made Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure a classic, this movie honors and expands his legacy, and should prove to be a pleasure for anyone who has ever loved this character.
And watch out for that balloon scene. Holy cow.
Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is streaming now on Netflix.