The last time we saw Pee-Wee Herman, the eccentric puer aeternus created by Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman during their days in The Groundlings improv troupe, was in 1988’s Big Top Pee-Wee, which was considered a disappointment, both critically and box office wise, especially when compared to the classic predecessor, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Since the 1990 cancellation of the show, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the beloved character kept his appearances few and far between, mostly keeping it with public appearances or cameos on various shows. However, in the past several years, there has been talks of a new Pee-Wee movie, first from Paramount Pictures, then later there was the consideration of making an animated film. It wasn’t until December, 2014 was it finally announced that the big return of Pee-Wee Herman would come in the form of a Netflix original film, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, which is directed by John Lee, written by Paul Reubens and Paul Rust and produced by Reubens and Judd Apatow.
Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) lives a fairly mundane life in Fairville, but he has no issue with it as he is more than happy to live a repetitive life working at his local diner. However, things change when a stranger walks into the diner, that stranger is no other than Joe Manganiello (playing himself, no joke). They very quickly bond over a chocolate milkshake and their love of root beer barrel candy. Joe realizes that Pee-Wee has never actually left Fairville, he tells him that “breaking the rules and breaking the hearts” is all apart of the fun of life. He invites Pee-Wee to his birthday bash in New York City before riding off on his motorcycle. Pee-Wee ultimately decides to take his first holiday, leave Fairville and make his way to New York City.
For anyone wondering, there is no real continuity in place here. Similar to many classic comedy icons, each visit to the character brings in its own context, with no real thread connecting it to previous stories. In this particular context, Pee-Wee has never been out of Fairville, and somehow manages to keep a job as a chef, and his journey is all about putting himself out more, getting out of his comfort zone and seeing what the world can offer if he simply opened himself up a bit instead of shutting himself out of anything different and new. It makes for a solid thematic throughline for the character in this story.
If I had to call out something negative, it would probably be the overall aesthetic of the movie, which doesn’t seem that far off from being a low budget TV movie. In some sense it works because it’s Pee-Wee Herman, but I’d argue that Tim Burton still managed to bring a very cinematic quality to Big Adventure that every other Pee-Wee outing has failed to match. However, one way this improves over Big Top is the subtle nods and references to various films. Big Adventure was basically a riff on the 1948, Vittorio De Sica classic, The Bicycle Thieves. Big Holiday doesn’t riff on any one particular movie, but it does bring to mind a number of teen-oriented road comedies, often ones involving the male lead getting infatuated by a girl who is way out of his league and going on an adventure, as well as a journey of self-discovery, to see her again (I’m pretty sure there’s at least three 80s John Cusack movies that fit this description). And yes, in this scenario, Joe Manganiello is the soul mate that Pee-Wee never realized he needed, and double yes, they play up the homoeroticism to such a degree that it might actually rival the bromance between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in the Jump Street movies. But what I loved about this element is that it’s not really played as a joke, the relationship is probably the most sincere thing about the film, it’s where the heart of the film is and gives it that extra edge as well as a sense of progressiveness.
Aside from all that, what Big Holiday shows is that Pee-Wee is still a great and timeless character and Paul Reubens clearly has not lost a beat in his portrayal. Reubens and the filmmaker’s commitment to the bizarre and surreal keep things moving fast and making them interesting. Not all the jokes will land, but most of them will, and the few that don’t will still have a charm to them because of the willingness from everybody involved to go completely balls out. There were multiple points where I had to pause so I can calm myself down from laughing so hard. Every new place that Pee-Wee visits on his way to New York doesn’t overstay its welcome, it knows when the joke is over so it can move on. This might be due to director John Lee, whose background is mainly oddball sketch comedy shows; known mostly for creating Wonder Showzen. But the best part of Big Holiday and its humor is the fact that it never relies on nostalgia or callbacks, which generally plagues most revisits to old franchises, and there’s no annoying updates to the character. It’s the same old Pee-Wee with his same old (and weird) sense of humor, and it’s shocking to see just how effective and resonating this character is even today.
Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday might not seem like anything special at first, but it proves that passion for a character can go a long way and that passion seeps into every frame of the film. Not only does the film exceeds at the bare minimum of being a jolly good time, it manages to create a genuinely heartfelt love letter to weirdos everywhere with the charmingly sincere bromance between Joe Manganiello and Pee-Wee Herman. Both outsiders in their own way, brought together by seeking each other in their efforts to embrace their inner weirdness. The work from the actors, both main and supporting, feel effortless in their immersion into the strange world that Pee-Wee inhabits. I personally really like the bank robber trio (played by Stephanie Beatriz, Alia Shawkat and Jessica Pohly) who look and act like the kind of big-chested babes you’d expect from an old Russ Meyer flick. While I can’t speak for anyone not already a fan of the character, I found Big Holiday to be an absolute blast from beginning to end, with more than enough sweetness and charm to spare. Pee-Wee Herman isn’t just a loner and a rebel, he’s a straight up icon. 85/100