Since his first appearance 35 years ago, Pee-wee Herman has maintained a unique appeal in popular culture: He looks like a goofy children’s comedy figure, but is actually something else. With his distinctive chuckle and wide-eyed enthusiasm at every waking moment, the pale-faced brainchild of Paul Reubens seems like post-war America dreaming of itself. The playful naiveté and brightly-colored absurdities of an invented suburbia surrounding him are a flamboyant form of denial about the real world. In “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” the Netflix-produced adventure that marks the character’s first starring role since the return of his stage show six years ago, Pee-wee finally gives the real world a shot — and it’s clear why he never left it. While still an endearing figure, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” finds the material stretched thin.
At first, it’s simply a marvel to watch the perseverance of the eternally peppy character, now portrayed by an actor in his early sixties, as his zany appeal hasn’t waned one bit. Bidding farewell to an otherworldly creature in the opening minutes, he then launches into a giddy morning routine that starts with a floating armchair and ends on a two-person skateboard. Speeding through the homogenized neighborhoods of Fairville, Pee-wee remains blithely unaware of his frozen time. Mark Allen Mothersbaugh’s merry score tracks Pee-wee’s mounting excitement, which is particularly ironic once he arrives at the retro diner where he remains slavishly employed. It’s both comforting and a little eerie to find that nothing’s changed.
Needless to say, Pee-wee has a few reasons to question his surroundings. His band dumped him, his boss treats him rough, and he doesn’t have any discernible friends. He can deal with the minor drama, but a fresh possibility arrives when Joe Manganiello walks into the diner and astounds Pee-wee with his coolness. (Yes, it’s that Joe Manganiello, from “True Blood” and “Magic Mike,” as he must remind Pee-wee when the naif thinks he’s met an aspiring actor.) The pair instantly bond over their shared love of “root beer barrels” before Manganiello proposes that Pee-wee take a trip from Fairville to New York City for Joe’s birthday party. Hitting the road, Pee-wee embarks on a perilous adventure in which he learns there’s no place like his lopsided home.
The ensuing odyssey has the signposts of classic Pee-wee lunacy: losing his car, he encounters a rapping cave-dweller in the woods; another new companion takes him into the clouds; at a motel, he’s held captive by a trio of robbers who call themselves Freckles, Bella and…Pee-wee (Alia Shawkat, in yet another prolonged cameo), a coincidence designed to hint at romantic possibilities, but they never fully bloom.
Directed in a straightforward, television-ready fashion by John Lee, the vignette-like structure of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” rises and falls on the basis of its gags. A recurring bit about Pee-wee discovering that he really likes garnish works pretty well; an extended sequence in which he gets trapped in a well overstays its welcome. One standout moment finds Pee-wee showing off his entertainment skills to a group of befuddled Amish by slowly letting the air out of a balloon; it completely hijacks the narrative in a brilliantly surreal coup.
Of course, the humor of Pee-wee’s universe works less because it’s funny than outright strange, but to that end, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” never swings that hard. Manganiello’s star power isn’t quite strong enough for the overarching joke of his casting to land (Channing Tatum would’ve worked wonders with it). There’s a certain baseline amusement to recurring cutaways in which Pee-wee dreams of Manganiello’s birthday, with explosive colors and party favors galore, as the pair inexplicably shout to each other in Spanish. But by the third or fourth time, it’s clear that no greater takeaway exists for this punchline beyond its capacity as padding for the non-existent plot.
Diehard Pee-wee fans will hardly care. Pee-wee’s insular world is a kind of expressionistic tribute to the silly-strange quality of life itself, and that consistency sinks deeper than any story featuring his exploits. It doesn’t hurt that “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” was shot by shot by Tim Orr, whose longtime collaborations with David Gordon Green have ranged from the southern-fried realism of “George Washington” to the zany extremes of “Pineapple Express.” Here, he captures a similar range, with the candy-colored palette of the introductory scenes later segueing into much darker possibilities as Pee-wee finds himself marooned in an urban jungle.
That darkness is key to capturing one compelling theme. While some viewers may see Pee-wee through the lens of nostalgia, in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” also hints at the possibility that Pee-wee simply doesn’t belong in today’s fast-paced world. In his most adult role to date, Reubens surfaced in Todd Solondz’s 2009 dramedy “Life During Wartime” as the ghost of a depressed man who committed suicide. While there’s never any indication that Pee-wee might face a similar fate, he does seem like a specter of his former self, still going through the motions of an immutable existence.
Needless to say, there’s an intrinsic melancholy to Pee-wee’s outrageous nature, but the movie’s never savvy enough to parse it too deeply. Notwithstanding his peculiar quasi-sexual attraction to Manganiello, nothing in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” really assesses the attributes that ostracize him. He’s living the dream so well it’s not possible for him to wake up.
If nothing else, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” plays like part of a bonus pack for Pee-wee fans who have Netflix accounts. On the same digital platform that hosts his latest work, one can find all five seasons of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the 1988 Christmas special, and Tim Burton’s wondrous 1985 feature “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” While “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” plays like a watered-down version of the beloved persona’s finest work, it also provides a pretty good excuse to revisit the better examples.
“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is available on Netflix starting today.