‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’ Review: The Secret Word Is ‘Nostalgia’

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Judd Apatow knows a thing or two about manchildren. He’s built an entire career chronicling the exploits of immature boys straining for maturity against the pull of their juvenile urges. Apatow’s latest producing effort, though, presents an entirely different sort of overgrown kid: Pee-wee Herman, who’s less of an adult with the impulses of a child as a child in the body of an adult.

The Pee-wee of the new film Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is described by a friend as “the sweetest boy in Fairvale” and has apparently spent his entire life in that sleepy suburban town. He’s never been anywhere, or flown on an airplane; as one joke reveals, he’s never even seen a traffic light in person. He tools around in his adorable tiny car and works as the short-order cook at a local diner, with little interest in the world beyond Fairvale’s borders  or in mankind’s baser instincts. He is innocence personified. You could call him the 63-year-old virgin.

Yes, Paul Reubens, the man who co-created and plays Pee-wee Herman is now 63, and looking remarkably well preserved for his age. So is Pee-wee, who hasn’t lost a step in all the years since 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee. His Netflix revival is an enjoyable journey, even if its content seems to directly contradict its message.

The reason for Pee-wee’s big holiday is, at least according to the letter journalists were handed at the film’s press screening, a spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you’re really concerned. (I wouldn’t be.) Pee-wee’s mundane existence is sent spiraling into chaos by the arrival in Fairvale of a handsome, motorcycle-riding stranger played by Joe Manganiello. He strolls into Pee-wee’s diner and the two immediately hit off. The stranger, it turns out, is handsome motorcycle-riding actor Joe Manganiello, who then invites Pee-wee to come to his birthday party in New York City. That’s quite an ask for a guy who’s never left his tiny hometown, but Pee-wee realizes he’s grown tired of Fairvale (and totally enamored with Manganiello’s aura of cool) so he heads East to reunite with his new pal.

Like so many of Netflix’s recent “original” series and shows, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday trades on viewers’ nostalgia for old pop culture. In both title and content, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday recalls his old Big Adventure, when he traveled cross-country in search of his stolen bike. (If he’s never seen a traffic light before in this one, does that make this a prequel?) There’s no dance number to “Tequila” this time, but Big Holiday implicitly follows its predecessor’s formula right down the line. Every scene is a new wacky misadventure with another eccentric character Pee-wee meets on the road. There’s a sequence in an Amish community, and another involving a traveling salesman who almost literally peddles snake oil. And Pee-wee repeatedly runs afoul of a gang of busty female criminals inspired by the trio of cons in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill!

The results are mostly pleasing and occasionally very funny (particularly whenever Manganiello pops up and Pee-wee tries to pronounce his name). But they also feel very familiar, something that flies in the face of the movie’s key theme about reinvention. Every scene before Pee-wee leaves Fairvale harps on the fact that he needs to try something new. He has a nightmare about being afraid to leave home. His rock band breaks up, and a character says “You’re stuck in a rut, Pee-wee!” After Manganiello shows up, he begs Pee-wee to let down his hair (or at least his hairnet). “Breaking rules and breaking hearts is what life’s all about!” he insists.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday breaks no rules (except perhaps when it gently hints that the attraction between Pee-wee and Joe is more than platonic). And it certainly doesn’t let its hero do anything new. It’s knowingly and deliberately designed to evoke the Pee-wee of old, right down to the Rube Goldberg machine that wakes him up in the morning. Director John Lee (Wonder ShowzenInside Amy Schumer) capably captures the action, but does little to distinguish his Pee-wee from Tim Burton’s. Despite all his yearning to break free of his old, stale life, Pee-wee still hasn’t grown up.

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