Completely charming and witty, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday does a great job of returning Paul Reubens’ wonderful character to a screen — any screen you watch Netflix on, starting Friday. Co-produced by Reubens and Judd Apatow, Big Holiday takes its influences from Reubens’ best work — his TV show Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Tim Burton’s 1985 Pee-wee’s Big Adventure feature film — and brings it up to date… just a little.
That last qualification is important, because the greatest element of Pee-wee Herman pleasure is the way the 60-something Reubens draws on all the decades of pop-culture references that he treasures. This Netflix original film has a loose but poignant theme: Pee-wee thinks he’s living a happy life in the small town of Fairville (he works in a diner, and everyone knows his name), but on some level, he’s trapped. He has a dream that concludes with a cry that’s the opposite of Dorothy’s plight in The Wizard of Oz: “I can’t leave home!” Pee-wee yelps.
Clearly, Pee-wee needs to get out of his pleasant rut, and so when a stranger comes to town — Joe Manganiello playing Joe Manganiello — he heeds the actor’s advice and takes off on a journey to New York City. (One joke here is that Pee-wee doesn’t recognize him as a movie star — when Manganiello asks him if he’s seen Magic Mike, Pee-wee says coyly, “You’d think so, but no” — perhaps Reubens’ sole, glancing reference to the scandal that froze his career for years.)
Directed by John Lee (Wonder Showzen) and co-written by Reubens and Love’s Paul Rust, Big Holiday begins with a lovingly created wake-up-in-the-morning sequence that features Rube Goldberg-like methods Pee-wee uses to start his day, and then becomes a jaunty road movie, in which he encounters a wide variety of characters including a trio of female outlaws who could have come straight out of the Russ Meyer movie Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
How many viewers of Big Holiday are going to pick up on the baby-boomer-ish references strewn throughout the film? I’m thinking, for example, of the farmer with so many daughters: do millennials know any farmer’s daughters/traveling salesman jokes? And I’m thinking as well of the woman Pee-wee meets who has a flying car; the character’s name is Penny King — and it’s surely no coincidence that that was the name of the young niece on the 1950s kids show Sky King.
Paul Reubens has always designed his work to operate on multiple levels — you can watch his stuff as pure children’s entertainment, or enjoy it as camp art, or admire the way he collapses more than half-a-century of pop culture, mixing and shuffling visual and verbal gags to fashion a beautiful, moving collage.
“You’re cute as a peanut!” says an old lady to Pee-wee early on in Big Holiday. She’s right—Pee-wee and Reubens remain cute, but never cutesy; the artist and his creation are pure products of American culture, unique treasures mixing innocence and knowingness in just the right amounts.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is streaming now on Netflix.