It’s been nearly 30 years since Pee-wee Herman’s last scripted feature film—Big Top Pee-wee, in 1988—and in the decades since, the cultish popularity of the character played by Paul Reubens has not waned. His 1991 indecent exposure arrest in a Sarasota porn theater couldn’t keep fans away (a victimless crime, but apparently America didn’t like its children’s entertainers caught jerking off in adult movie theaters), nor could his waning public visibility, sporadic until 2007. Pee-wee’s career was revivified in 2010 by a wildly successful Broadway show, but really what we were all waiting for was another scripted film—any one of those he suggested exist in, historically, his finest medium. But a full generation later, would his childlike comedy, a sensibility he honed in the 1980s, hold up?
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, released last week on Netflix, thankfully does not try to update its signature wacky humor for the internet age, nor does it even really acknowledge that innovations such as cell phones and laptops took over the world since Pee-wee last spazzed across the silver screen. Instead, it focuses on the most delightful universal theme—the importance of friendship—set in a typical Pee-wee adventure caper with fairly timeless background that forgoes iPads for typically handcrafted visual effects. It’s a lovely candy treat of a film, peppered with the sort of funny and wild characters that made fans love Pee-wee joints in the first place.
Rooted in a sort of fantasy of a 1950s children’s show, the magic begins with Pee-wee dreaming in Fairville, the friendly small town where he lives and works, and where nothing stays the same. He pops out of a dream and heads to his work at the diner in a brilliant opening scene featuring a Rube Goldberg device that starts with his Murphy Bed popping him out fully clothed, sends his tiny child’s convertible through a neighbor’s living room and down a breakfast buffet, and flips him onto a skateboard, on which he picks up his elderly woman neighbor wearing a helmet, dropping her off at work before heading off to his job as the fry cook at the local diner.
And yet, despite all this child’s play, Pee-wee feels himself stagnating—that is, until he meets a very mysterious, otherworldly-cool stranger on a motorcycle who rolls into Pee-wee’s diner with a smile. The stranger and Pee-wee bond over root-beer barrel candies, chocolate milkshakes and Rolos, and the man convinces Pee-wee that he should go out on the open road, see America—and finally, attend his birthday party, which will be held at a fancy New York penthouse because the man is Joe Manganiello playing Joe Manganiello. (Pee-wee, in this film, has never heard of Magic Mike.)
What follows is a fable of sorts, populated by all the strange and fascinating characters a person encounters when exploring the world—many of them hilarious, tough and adventurous women, through which Pee-wee learns about his own character. These include a Ronettes-style trio of woman robbers who kidnap Pee-wee and hijack his car—but soon warm to him once they discover he shares the name Pee-wee with one of their gang members (Alia Shawkat); a quartet in a traveling salon on their way to a national hair show, whose friendship is so important that when they stand together, their wigs comprise a map of the US; and a wealthy New Yorker in an Amelia Earhart cap whose little car turns into an airplane (played by Diane Salinger, Simone from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure).
As Pee-wee makes his way across the country, uncertain he’ll make it to Joe Manganiello’s penthouse in time for the party, he envisions what it will be like when he finally arrives—Pee-wee and Joe jumping up and down with a giant cake and fireworks; Pee-wee and Joe jousting on piñatas; Pee-wee and Joe speaking to one another solely in terrible Spanish. These montages embody the film’s core quality, that of innocent joy and creative, celebratory moments. Pee-wee reprises some of his classic jokes, both verbal and physical (he plays his infamous balloon symphony for a crowd of appreciative Amish folk), and it’s a reminder of why we’ve loved this character for decades, through thick and thin, but also why he’s remained so totally relevant. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is pure of heart, and true of character, and so far the sweetest film I’ve seen all year.
Images via screenshot/Netflix