Review: Pee Wee's Big Holiday
REVIEW: Who would have thought that with all the big money Netflix has poured into their original film label that their first, undeniable success would be a low-budget reawakening of eighties pop culture icon Pee-wee Herman? Maybe this shouldn’t come as such a huge surprise as right from their launch Netflix has made big bucks on Gen-X’er nostalgia, with the recent Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Fuller House, the upcoming Gilmore Girls movies and even their first original show, a continuation of Arrested: Development, being ample proof of that.
For those of you not in the know, Pee-wee Herman was a huge pop-culture icon in the eighties, spanning stand-up tours, HBO specials, movies and a wildly successful (and insane) Saturday-morning kids show, Pee Wee’s Playhouse. From the time his first movie, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE hit theaters in 1985, star Paul Reubens was rarely seen not in person as Pee Wee, and the figure become massively popular amongst kids and adults, the latter of whom appreciated the satiric (but good natured) bent of the character. Reubens eventually got into some legal trouble in the early nineties (which I’ll not go into here) and as a result Pee-wee was no-longer considered kid-friendly although he’s since made a comeback as a character actor in movies like BLOW. Reubens always promised he’d bring the character back and following a successful Broadway show, he’s back!
A kind of spiritual sequel to the first Pee Wee movie, PEE WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY works far better than anyone would have had the right to expect. Despite being sixty-three, Reubens doesn’t look much different as Pee-wee than he did in the eighties (helped in part by some good VFX one assumes). Pee-wee’s persona hasn’t changed much over the years, he still acts like a boy-man, something that’s not unusual in his idyllic home-town Fairville, which seems lifted out of a fifties Norman Rockwell painting. Working as a short-order cook in a diner, Pee-wee’s devastated when his band, “The Renegades” breaks-up, but lucky for him cool Joe Manganiello comes blowing through town on his Harley ready to shake up Pee-wee’s stagnant existence.
Manganiello comes pretty close to stealing the show from Reubens, playing an exaggerated version of himself, as he becomes best pals with Pee-wee in the span of a single afternoon thanks mostly to their shared sweet tooth. Like his MAGIC MIKE co-star Channing Tatum did in the 21 JUMP STREET movies, Manganiello seems game to poke fun at himself, with the character being stunned by the fact that no one in Pee-wee’s town seems to recognize him from True Blood or MAGIC MIKE. He shows some pretty impeccable comic timing, adopting a big softie persona that meshes really well with Reubens and the climatic scenes showing him agonizing over the fact that Pee-wee might miss his party are pretty funny. It’s a really good performance as he brings the same sincerity to his part that Reubens does, meaning no cool-guy, knowing looks at the camera or anything like that.
The effectiveness of Manganiello’s performance is just one of the many surprising things about PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY. While no one will ever quite be able to recapture the imaginative vibe of Tim Burton’s PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (Danny Elfman’s iconic score is really missed here) new director John Lee does a great job in his own right. A regular contributor to Adult Swim, Lee’s take on the Pee-wee Herman world is like a family-friendly version of John Waters, with clever bits including a switchblade-wielding trio of lady bank robbers in tight Angora sweaters – who look right out of a 1950’s AIP drive-in movie. All of the people Pee-wee meets on his cross-country trip to NYC fight well into the universe, with Alia Shawkat especially good as the most soft-hearted of the bank-robbers. Some of the episodes are better than others, with Pee-wee’s run-in with a farmer’s amorous daughters being funnier than a weird bit with a mountain man, but if we’re honest here PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE had the same issue.
Luckily, Lee keeps things rolling at a tight ninety minutes, a far cry from the indulgent two hour plus running time Netflix allowed Adam Sandler with THE RIDICULOUS SIX. More important that anything is that Reubens still has a great handle the character (with an assist from Netflix’s Love collaborators Paul Rust an producer Judd Apatow). Despite our cynical time, Pee-wee’s aged better than you’d think and the movie is so charming that you can’t help but hope that Reubens gets to do more Pee-wee projects, with him going on-record saying he’s got tons of ideas for places to take the character. What’s most reassuring about PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY is that while so much has changed in the thirty years since PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, Pee Wee’s still the same old Pee Wee we knew and loved as kids. Welcome back Pee Wee. Never leave again!