Movie Review: Pee Wee’s Big Holiday
This week, Netflix took yet another step into becoming a full fledged studio with its release of Pee Wee’s Big Holiday, the first original Pee Wee Herman production since his 2010 stage show revival, and his first new movie since 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee. With excellent films like Beasts of No Nation, and hit series like House of Cards, this Blockbuster-killer is starting to look like a Hollywood-killer as well, and their new film has plenty of moxie and laughs to keep Netflix going strong till their next big release.
Enough about Netflix…how is the new Pee Wee movie? Fans of Paul Reubens’ seminal man-child persona have been hoping and praying for this movie for decades. Whispers and rumors of rumors have been promising us a triumphant return for Mr. Herman, and Reubens has been carefully stirring the pot since at least 2006 when a rumored movie deal with Paramount seemed just within reach, before evaporating like foam on a beach. Nearly 30 years since his last outing, the man in the red bow-tie has finally made his way back to the (home) big screen…and fans should be very pleased with the results. It may not be Big Adventure, but it is big fun, and a nearly flawless return to form for Pee Wee Herman.
Pee Wee’s Big Holiday (2016)
Pee Wee Herman is happy with life. In the sleepy community of Fairville, where everything is perpetually 1950, Pee Wee has it all: the respect of his neighbors, the admiration of his community, a librarian who knows his favorite books and has a not-so-secret crush on him, and a job he loves. He loves Fairville, Fairville loves him, and he never ever wants to leave…until a mysterious stranger (Joe Manganiello playing Joe Manganiello) arrives and shows Pee Wee that the wider world is calling for him to explore it. He invites Pee Wee to his big birthday bash in New York, stipulating that if he really wants to experience life, he should take a holiday road trip to the big city. Now Pee Wee has 5 days to cross the country while trying to have the biggest adventure of his life.
Old Friends, New Jokes
Like all of Pee Wee’s movies, Big Holiday exists in its own universe. Pee Wee reinvents himself with each outing, changing his history, cast of supporting characters, and motivations. The only constant is his quirky personality. In his successful films, that personality is buoyant and exciting. In his misfires, that personality is petulant and self-centered. In Big Holiday, Reubens rediscovers Pee Wee’s sense of wonder, and while the character is a touch more mature than he was in Playhouse or Big Adventure, the version of our hero we get here is fun and funny.
In a completely new setting, Pee Wee has a chance to feel fresh again. There are many call-backs to great moments in Herman history that ground this film in the pantheon of his earlier work. Many familiar actors and comedians who had roles in his other films and television series make cameos as new characters, and Pee Wee’s love of novelty toys and hatred of snakes both drive the story at key points. Big Adventure and Big Holiday are both road trip comedies, and several important plot points and characters from the first outing are re-imagined (instead of meeting a lone convict, Pee Wee meets a gang of female convicts who keep popping into his life, and instead of getting his novelties from a magic shop, Pee Wee meets a traveling gag-gift salesman.) There are just enough nods to his past to recall fond memories, without making this story feel like a retread of earlier bits. Indeed, many of the familiar elements get riffed on, creating fresh jokes out of a familiar set up.
Sights and Sounds
Pee Wee’s Big Holiday looks and sounds like vintage Herman. The music is spot on, even without Danny Elfman spinning the calliope’s handle this time around. The outrageous visuals that made his earlier work iconic return, from the opening dream sequence, to the wacky inventions that populate Pee Wee’s house (and even spill out into his neighborhood,) to the road-side tourist traps he visits across the country. Pee Wee experiences our world through a different sensibility, and his take on Americana is still irreverent and playful after all these years. Director John Lee takes the reins for his first feature length film, and fills Big Holiday with great set pieces, and creates a unique visual flair for the film. Recurring motifs and sequences put a distinct and welcome stamp on the project.
How Big is Big?
The natural question in many viewers mind is does Big Holiday compare to the classic Big Adventure. In my opinion, Big Holiday falls just shy of the outright delicious lunacy of the original, but it manages to do its own thing so effectively that the comparison almost becomes irrelevant. Pee Wee’s charm is in his style, and Big Holiday has that in spades. The cast is colorful and fun, and Reubens and Manganiello have a great chemistry on screen together. There are a few skits that fall a bit flat, such as when Pee Wee meets a crazy hermit in the woods with daddy issues, or stays over night with the proverbial farmer and his daughters, but there is almost always a big pay-off joke waiting at the end of a less than stellar segment.
For fans of the series, Big Holiday is going to be a fresh trip with an old friend. For newcomers to the series, there is enough comedy and wackiness to catch their interest, while hopefully leading them on to viewing the earlier Pee Wee classics. There’s enough here to really scratch my itch for Pee Wee’s style of humor, and while I would be thrilled for this to lead to another outing, I’m happy to have been along for the ride at least one more time.