There’s a choice moment of acid-trip hallucigenia in “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” — the latest outing from Paul Reubens and his signature character — that’s on on par with the now-iconic Large Marge scene in the beloved “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” from 1985. That this ghoulish moment feels stale-yet-still-disturbing, though, embodies the torn meta-duties of this sweet-natured lark: produced by Judd Apatow and co-written by “Love” writer/star Paul Rust and Reubens, “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” wants to be “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for a new generation of Pee-Wee fans, pursuing the classic beats of the aforementioned Tim Burton film while throwing in hints of new journeys. But the result, while featuring some superbly non-sequitur moments and gags, feels forced into a road trip package caught between self-awareness and naivety.
Square in the center of this conflict is actor Joe Manganiello, so present in this film that he reaches Furiosa-esque heights of franchise hijacking. Playing an almighty version of himself, in a universe where his face is everywhere and families might pray to “Magic Mike” before bedtime, Manganiello feels like a new form of product placement but with people — if only he weren’t actually as charming and funny in the film as it requires.
Manganiello’s Harley-riding entrance into the sleepy town of Fairville serves as Pee-wee’s dramatic catalyst to “live a little.” Up to that point, Pee-wee enacts the same daily routine involving Rube Goldberg devices attached to his bed, armchairs, and car, before skateboarding to work at the local diner where he’s the youngest by 30 years. It’s a comfortable routine — he literally tells a travel agent he doesn’t “want to go anywhere, or try anything new.” But that all changes when Manganiello saunters into the diner, bonds with Pee-wee over root beer barrel candies, and promptly invites him to his New York birthday party planned in two weeks.
While the first “children’s film” where the narrative thrust revolves around wanting to party with a “True Blood” actor, the setup doesn’t matter much: it all simply serves to get Pee-Wee back out on the road. Luckily, Reubens lands right back into the role with ease. Even if his make-up job has evolved into a more intense form, his physicality and way around Pee-wee’s words are expertly honed, as is the film’s style.
From the bright look by director John Lee (“Wonder Showzen”) and longtime David Gordon Green DP Tim Orr, to the music by Mark Mothersbaugh, the style aims for ultra-exaggerated, but the most effective humor from Rust and Reubens’ script comes from the details in its colorful fabric. It’s in a turn of phrase, as when Joe’s party invitation address simply reads “My Penthouse in New York,” or during an inspired physical bit involving a balloon, Pee-Wee, and the Amish.
In a film where the details rescue the broad strokes, the story fails to rise above anything more than episodic hijinks. As Pee-wee reaches the first stoplight after leaving Fairville, he’s carjacked and kidnapped by a gang of arch bank robber femmes (Alia Shawkat, Jessica Pohly, and Stephanie Beatriz). Pee-wee strikes up an interest in the kindest of the three, Shawkat’s Bella, but Lee frames it with a similar dynamic as Elizabeth Daily’s Dottie from ‘Big Adventure’ without putting in the necessary empathetic legwork to make an audience care.
The other stops are split down the middle with the same issues: rural scenes with a farmer trying to marry his daughters off to Pee-wee are farcical and creaky, but at least they’re interestingly staged. Meanwhile, a stop at a snake farm, and then with a bus full of hairdressers on their way to a convention, is simply dull. However, a co-navigated plane ride with a feisty old woman (Penny King) finds a lively tone between artifice and danger, as does Pee-Wee’s encounter with a psychotic cave-dweller (Brad William Henke) in the woods.
It’s all just an appetizer of sorts for the main attraction: Joe Manganiello. Like Pee-wee himself, the thought of spending more time with the actor is preferable to the conflicts faced with Reubens’ character. Seeing Manganiello jump with glee, joust on a fake horse, and dance in Pee-wee’s dream sequences is a treat to behold, and they are the moments that perfectly encapsulate the film’s aim: to return viewers to a simpler time by keeping cynicism at bay, while throwing in self-aware traces of pop culture humor as well. It ends up evoking the best and worst of Pee-wee lore — both the ‘Big Adventure’ and “Big Top Pee-wee” days — and it is likely the more forgiving fans of the latter will find the most to love in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday”. [C-]
“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is now playing in limited release and on Netflix.