Review: Pee Wee’s Big Holiday (2016)

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Pee Wee makes his long awaited return to film after nearly 30 years. It was worth the wait and triple cool Joe Manganiello joins him to boot!

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is unabashedly one of my favorite films of the 1980’s. His cross-country journey to retrieve his beloved custom bicycle remains a beloved cult classic even now and still one of the best films of Tim Burton’s career 31 years after it was released. Paul Reubens’ iconic childhood icon, Pee Wee Herman, was an integral part of the millennial childhood experience. From his long-running CBS beloved television show Pee Wee’s Playhouse, to two successful films, 1985’S Adventure and 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee, Pee Wee was an inescapable part of growing up in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In recent years, Reubens has brought the Herman character back to the public arena in different forms, including a critically-received Broadway version of his original The Pee Wee Herman Show incorporating characters from Pee Wee’s Playhouse. This all led to superstar producer Judd APatow to produce an eagerly awaited all new Pee Wee Herman film, Pee Wee’s Big Holiday, which makes its debut this weekend on the Netflix streaming service starting this weekend. Pee Wee’s Big Holiday is a great return to form which captures the childlike wonder and sense of whimsy that defines the Pee Wee character and is on the same level as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

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Pee Wee’s Big Holiday is not a sequel to either of the past Pee Wee films. It is a stand-alone film that invokes the spirit and structure of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. The film starts with an elaborate dream sequence that leads to a breakfast scene inspired by an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine sequence, just like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. However, this Pee Wee Herman is not the same Pee Wee of that film. He lives in an idealized 1950’s inspired town called Fairville where he works in a diner and his life is governed by routine and he has no desire to ever change anything in his life or leave the town. However, those in his life are looking to impose change on him, from his band The Renegades wanting change, to his local library starting a book club, Pee Wee is chafed by change at any level to his routine. Enter movie star Joe Manganiello, playing … movie star Joe Manganiello. He pulls up to Pee Wee’s diner and Pee Wee thinks he’s the coolest person ever. They share a love of chocolate milkshakes, root beer barrels and rollos. The two click and form an instant bromance and Manganiello invites Pee Wee to his birthday party a few days later in New York City and encourages Pee Wee to leave Fairville and live a little and not to have his life defined by his routine. Pee takes Manganiello’s advice to heart and packs up his little car and heads out for adventure.

This is one of the main ways the film differentiates itself from the shadow of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, it makes the journey one of Pee Wee’s choice and based on his desire for friendship. Along the way, he meets a diverse cast of characters, some of which mirror his past (including an awesome cameo from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure‘s Diane Salinger playing an aviator inspired Katherine Hepburn pastiche). and some which allow the film to jump film genres, including a trio of bad ass femme fatales played by Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz, and Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, which are directly inspired by Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat Kill Kill. The joy comes from seeing how Pee Wee Herman interacts in different environments, from Amish villages, to a would-be shotgun wedding. Reubens knows the character intimately and his ability to make Pee Wee seem real and relatable to as a protagonist in a world inspired by magical realism is what allows the film to shake the label of just being a nostalgia trip and makes the film work on its own. Director John Lee got his start on the subversive Adult Swim show Wonder Showzen, which parodied PBS television shows like 321 Contact and others. The key to Wonder Showzen‘s success was taking what worked on classic kid’s show and being able to twist them into absurdist humor which lead the way for shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. Pairing Lee with a child show icon like Pee Wee Herman was a master stroke on Reubens’ and Judd Apatow’s part, since he’s able to pair that sensibility of knowing how to make audience expectations work and expand on it with a master performer. The film has absurdist scenes where Reubens’ cracks up and acts opposite himself at one point and these seem totally within the world of this film. Also, the bizarro casting choice of having Joe Manganiello play himself as Pee Wee’s would-be celebrity best friend works amazingly well, given Pee Wee’s past in being able to work with celebrities and make them work in his television show and Christmas Special. People want to be Pee Wee’s best friend, so it seems totally within the realm of reason that True Blood and Magic Mike star Manganiello would throw a tantrum if he can’t hang out with Pee Wee.

Pee Wee’s Big Holiday is a great film which captures what fans love about the Pee Wee Herman character and reintroduces him to a new audience while still making him relatable and endearing. Elton John, Venus and Serena Williams’ make the best cameo in a film since Elvis Costello in 200 Cigarettes. Though the filmmakers use some CGI to make Pee Wee appear ageless, its only because of the strong performance behind the character in this film that the viewer really believes that Pee Wee Herman is this ageless symbol of childhood wonder and whimsy.

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