Pee-wee Herman is Back in the Wonderfully Silly ‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’

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When Paul Reubens collaborated with Tim Burton on 1986’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, nobody expected the movie to become a cultural landmark. Not only did it introduce to the world to the fantastical stylings of Burton, but it introduced everyone to the tuxedoed man-child that would be a part of the pop culture landscape for decades in Pee-wee Herman. Even the public arrest that forced Pee-wee’s Playhouse off the air never diminished the enthusiasm that many people have for the character, leading to a revival with sold out shows on Broadway and in Downtown Los Angeles. That revival continues with Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, the new Pee-wee film from producer Judd Apatow which will debut on Netflix. While Pee-wee’s Big Holiday may not reach the dizzying highs of Big Adventure, it’s still such a silly, irreverent fun time that relishes itself in the absurd. If you love Pee-wee Herman, you’ll love Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.

After an odd and unexpected opening that has to be seen to be believed, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday kicks off in a manner not too dissimilar from Big Adventure, with Pee-wee arising from a slumber and following a series of intricately planned devices to help him start his day. But this time Pee-wee’s house isn’t wired for his routine, the entire town of Fairville, a quaint suburban community that is pulled straight out of ‘50s idealized sitcoms, is also wired to assist Pee-wee in getting his day started. Pee-wee works as the cook at the neighborhood diner, checks out the latest books from his favorite series, Scuba Cop, at the local library, and plays with his band the Renegades. Pee-wee is content in this bubble. “You know I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new,” he says to his bandmates.

But when his bandmates’ lives intrude on their routine, Pee-wee is confronted with the realization that he may be stuck in a rut of his own making. That afternoon, Pee-wee makes an instant connection over root beer barrels with a customer at the diner (played by Joe Manganiello) who invites him to his birthday party in New York City. Pee-wee makes the decision to leave his comfort zone, and with only five days to make it to New York, he embarks on his big vacation. Pee-wee’s plans are quickly derailed when his car is stolen by three outlaw women: Pepper (Jessica Pohly), Freckles (Stephanie Beatriz), and Bella (Alia Shawkat), nicknamed Pee-wee. Time isn’t on Pee-wee’s side as he relies on the help of a varied assortment of characters to make it to New York in time for the party.

There are a number of surface resemblances to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure throughout Big Holiday – a road trip movie where Pee-wee runs into a number of situations while receiving the help of assorted oddballs and eccentrics – but Big Holiday really makes an effort to be its own thing. John Lee’s film doesn’t take place in a setting that resembles reality. The town of Fairville, with its slogan “A Nice Place to Live,” is the kind of lily-white sitcom nostalgia for an era that never actually existed. This antiquated aesthetic extends beyond the borders of Fairville and exists in every locale that Pee-wee travels through. Even the trio of outlaw women are visually pulled straight out of the B-movie classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Even with its buxom criminals, this is an idealized and innocent world that only Pee-wee Herman could exist in.

Director John Lee fills Pee-wee’s Big Holiday with a number of sight gags that complement the absurd dialogue from the script by Reubens and Paul Rust, who has worked with Apatow on the Netflix series Love. There’s a childish simplicity to some of the gags that wouldn’t seem to work if explained but they simply work on the screen. One particular scene involving Pee-wee deflating a balloon shouldn’t be so funny, but it’s hilarious. I may have missed a cut in a fit laughter, but this lengthy scene plays out in one shot as the balloon slowly deflates, and Lee realizes that cutting would diminish the silliness unfolding before your eyes.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is just 90 minutes of silly joy. The revival of Pee-wee Herman isn’t beholden to nostalgia to work. Instead Pee-wee Herman is a character that doesn’t grow up. Though Reubens and thus Pee-wee are older, they’re still finding the fun in being the outlandish outsider of normal society. There’s something magical about the character that can’t be ruined (for Reubens or the audience) by age or reality. I sincerely hope that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is the first of many more trips with that majestic man-child.

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