That light-gray Glen plaid suit, topped with a bright red bow tie and white kicks. That precociously naive predilection for absurdly oversize or miniaturized household gadgets. Those impatient eye rolls, mischievous tongue darts and sweetly demented giggles. The fizzy comic persona of Pee-wee Herman dates back to the late Seventies, when Groundlings comedian (or can we now say conceptual artist?) Paul Reubens took his “luckiest boy in the world” to the stage, eventually breaking out with the 1981 HBO special The Pee-wee Herman Show. If you only know him from director Tim Burton’s multi-generationally beloved feature debut, 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — or the subsequent Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the inimitably eccentric, puppet-crowded children’s TV series that won 15 Emmys over five seasons — it might seem unusual that his early, slightly racier incarnation so often reveled in sexual innuendo. But Pee-wee is a work in progress, his history and identity reconfigured over time to get to the essence of his dreams and desires, like Werner Herzog’s notion of “the ecstatic truth” with more squealing balloon farts.
In the manically imaginative and very funny Pee-wee’s Big Holiday — Reubens’s first movie as the easily amused man-child since his 1991 indecent-exposure arrest set off an idiotic array of career-stalling media attention — it’s as if the Hollywood Walk of Famer were never a farmer-inventor in Big Top Pee-wee, nor a lovable eccentric who trekked cross-country in search of his bike. Surprisingly produced by super-fan Judd Apatow, and even more surprisingly directed by John Lee (whose subversive work on Wonder Showzen and The Heart, She Holler is decidedly not family friendly), the new film begins by mapping out small-town Fairville — a fictional all-American construct of mid-century gee-whizziness — with a Rube Goldberg-esque tour by dirigible, skis, tiny car, and skateboard. The Pee-wee of 2016 — if that’s even the correct year in an ambiguous universe existing somewhere between the lifelike and hypnagogic — works as a fry cook at the local diner. This time around, he’s less impolite and more content to keep the status quo, stating rather directly in his rebuke of a travel agent’s pitch, “You know I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new.”
Enter the catalyst for escape from his comfort zone: When a motorcycle-riding hunk (Magic Mike‘s Joe Manganiello) rolls up for a milkshake, he and our high-pitched hero hit it off immediately over their mutual love for root-beer-barrel candy and excessively literal wordplay. There’s no need here to spoil the film’s single narrative directive, as the pleasures of Pee-wee movies always come from their shaggy wonders and supporting weirdos rather than their barely conceived plots. Needless to say, Pee-wee is back on another zany road odyssey, a domino effect of encounters that leads him to Amish country, a snake farm, into the air with a woman who could be a Katharine Hepburn impersonator playing Amelia Earhart, then sees him on the run from a gaggle of farmer’s daughters and kidnapped by a bank-robbing trio of switchblade-wielding sexpots who play cheeky homage to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
If the success of the most recent Star Wars is partly due to its shameless plundering of the original trilogy’s greatest hits, the same might be said for Big Holiday, which hopefully won’t be written off as a franchise reboot of Big Adventure. Unlike in The Force Awakens, which preys on nostalgia by offering fans (aging) favorites to buttress the next-gen galactic warriors, in Big Holiday, Pee-wee Herman can only be played by one comedic marvel. Reubens is 63 in real life, and admits that his rouge-rosy face and taped-back neck have been digitally retouched to appear as youthful as ever, but he hasn’t lost any steam as a performer of great heart and wit. During the movie, I literally cried tears of joy.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday
Directed by John Lee
Premieres March 18 on Netflix
Opens March 18, Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers