Mar 18, 2016

Review: Pee-Wee Returns with "Big Holiday" and Lots of Old Time Fun

If you talked to anyone in the past month, it would seem like nostalgia is more popular than ever. From the first Ghostbusters trailer to the Fuller House series, properties that are decades old have been making a comeback in strides, and often with divisive fanfare. It only makes sense then that Pee-Wee Herman would join the circus with his own new movie and first since Big Top Pee-Wee. At the age of 63, Paul Reubens is no spring chicken, which only makes the success of Pee-Wee's Big Holiday all the more of a miracle. It may not live up to the high caliber, cult like status of his debut film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but it provides enough laughs and integrity that longtime fans will appreciate his return without having to admit that it doesn't work. Pee-Wee hasn't adapted with the times, and that's the best compliment that can be given.
It does seem likely that Reubens and co-writer Paul Rust (recently of Netflix's Love) were aware that it would be impossible to top the heights of the Tim Burton classic. A sequence early on features the familiar Rube Goldberg machine in which Pee-Wee is seen getting out of bed and going to work, all while composer Mark Mothersbaugh does a jaunty accompaniment. The sequence is different enough to avoid being called a retread, but it immediately sets up a familiarity to the character that should suggest that we're in for more of the same. Pee-Wee waves hello to a gaggle of neighborhood buddies; ranging from children to a breakfast buffet in a house that he drives his car through. It's the right level of absurd for the satirical 50's suburbia character. Add in an introduction that features a parody of E.T. (though the puppet would more suggest Mac and Me), and this film is going to be a treasure trove of references for anyone who was age appropriate for Pee-Wee's Playhouse when it first aired.
To a certain degree, it doesn't seem too wrong for Big Holiday to ape Big Adventure in making the film a road trip story. The general set-up of Pee-Wee needing to leave his comfort zone already feels like a meta commentary on his stagnation and conservative optimism. However, the catch is a little disappointing, if just because it mirrors the recent downfall of The Muppets reboot in 2011. The main motivation that gets Pee-Wee out of town is through noteworthy celebrity cameo Joe Manganiello; who was recently seen in Magic Mike XXL gyrating on a liquor store floor. While the actor (who plays himself) does an admirable job of playing friendly and goofy, there's a certain sense of laziness that comes from making the drive of the entire story, and I kid you not, is Pee-Wee's quest to meet up with Manganiello in New York for his birthday party. While the adventure to follow certainly is fun, it raises questions as to why Manganiello couldn't play a character to make it seem like a gratuitous celebrity cameo. 
The most interesting thing about the journey is that Reubens is somehow still as spry as in earlier takes. While not nearly as eccentric vocally (those expecting his patented freak out will be disappointed), he captures a youthful optimism and the writers give him enough creativity to navigate such events as an Amish farm and a group of busty bank robbers who seem like a loose homage to smut king Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! film. It's all in good fun and comes across as a throwback to every possible decade in the latter 20th century. It's fun and kitschy and makes you wish that there had been more Pee-Wee movies made over the years when Reubens was far younger.
However, there's never a moment that strikes as effectively as Big Adventure. As much as it sounds and acts the same, there's no "Basement at The Alamo" or "Tequila" scene. At most, there's Pee-Wee being Pee-Wee, and his charm hasn't faded too much. With exception obviously to the supporting actors' ages, the film feels like it could be transplanted from the 80's, at which point it likely would've been called a mediocre sequel. Considering the rendezvous of memorable gigs that Reubens has taken in the past five years to resurrect this character, there's a certain disappointment. Something's missing when Pee-Wee does an extended gag of letting air out of a balloon (yes, we see the whole thing). It may seem difficult to set aside expectations for this to justify the long absence, but the film is merely okay. It may not be a problem, but it relies too much on nostalgia to do anything new and memorable.
Big Holiday isn't a bad movie by any means. It may not strike the highs of Pee-Wee's past, but it definitely is a miracle that Reubens is still a captivating force. The movie definitely captures a sense of fun and optimism that has always been the main appeal of the character. It thankfully was written by people who clearly love the character. The only issue is that maybe there's too much love for him, and the choice to cast Manganiello is a misfire conceptually that thankfully doesn't derail the movie entirely. This is a love letter to a character who has endured through an unprecedented career. It may not be on people's rotation as much as Big Adventure or Playhouse, but it definitely does the character enough justice to not recreate this franchise with a bitter legacy.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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