‘Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday’ Review: Sweet, Hilarious and Bromantic
Hollywood’s risk-averse impulse to cater to our collective “throwback” addiction has spawned a Reboot Renaissance. Seemingly every beloved entertainment property is slated for a remake/revival/reimagining if it hasn’t gotten one already: In the case of Spider-Man, the cycle between reboots is just three short years. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for a time when we weren’t drunk on our own nostalgia — except, of course, when a revival is so masterful it makes you feel like no time has passed at all.
Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, the latest in Netflix’s increasingly-bulletproof roster of ”reawakened” franchises (Fuller House, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, the forthcoming Gilmore Girls movies), stands with one foot planted in fan-pleasing homage. But its real strength is how it throws most of its weight forward into fresh territory. Pee-wee’s latest adventure isn’t just hilarious; it plumbs new depths in exploring the psychology of the cartoonish man-boy character Paul Reubens first created way back in 1977.
It also celebrates the American treasure that is Joe Manganiello. Did you see Magic Mike XXL? If not, please get your life right ASAP.
The film, co-written by Reubens and comedian/Love star Paul Rust, finds Pee-wee living a pleasant if predictable life in the Pleasantville-esque hometown of Fairville, where he still lives in a house full of Rube Goldbergian contraptions and gets about town on a shiny red transport (it’s a toy car this time, not a bike). “I don't want to go somewhere new, or do anything different,” he exposits to the local travel agent, because “travel agent” is still an economically viable occupation in frozen-in-the-‘50s Fairville. As such, he avoids a possible date with a local girl, and blows up when his bandmates ditch the group for their accumulating grown-up responsibilities.
But Pee-wee’s moved to brave the outside world when a chance (b)romantic encounter with a stranger on a motorcycle, who he doesn’t recognize as actor Joe Manganiello, launches a cross-country journey to New York City to attend Joe’s birthday party.
Pee-wee meets a bank-robbing girl gang straight out of a '50s pulp novel in his surreal travels, as well as a traveling pranks salesman, a monstrous snake, a farmer and his nine frisky food fetishist daughters (as in every Pee-wee movie, women adore him, while he's ambivalent to say the least), and a creepy woods-dweller with a terrible hobby. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure actress Diane Salinger and Lynne Marie Stewart, who’s portrayed Pee-wee’s glam friend Miss Yvonne since the 1980s, both make near-unrecognizable cameos that I won’t spoil here, but that's just two of many easter eggs for longtime fans.
Amid his trip’s highs and lows, Pee-wee is spurred on by campy, often-homoerotic fantasies of reuniting with Joe. I would watch a second full-length movie consisting solely of these sequences.
The charm of those fantasies, like so much of Pee-wee’s humor up to and throughout Big Holiday, rest on Reubens’ singular ability to balance queer-leaning camp with genuine childlike wonder. This is Reubens’ genius, even beyond his stellar comic chops — and for those who missed 2011’s Pee-Wee on Broadway, the film serves as an overdue reminder of his razor-sharp timing. An adult of ambiguous age and sexuality who lives like a 12-year-old boy would be much creepier in less capable hands. In 1991, the public’s response to Reuben’s arrest for indecency in an adult movie theater spoke to a certain degree of unease with this aspect of his character, as well as people’s dual anxiety over the jolt of seeing him out of costume and the prospect of his possible homosexuality (Reubens has never publicly commented on his orientation, or Pee-wee’s for that matter).
But Big Holiday reasserts Reuben’s twin talents for subversion and unfettered sophomoric joy: A prime example of the latter is one of the movie’s funniest moments, dialogue-free and involving nearly two minutes of just Pee-wee and a balloon.
IS Pee-wee’s redemptive friendship with Joe Manganiello even the gayest thing about Pee Wee’s Big Holiday? Not necessarily, but its subtext’s already been unpacked in several think pieces in the days since its March 18 release, including “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday Is Actually a Queer Love Story” by Buzzfeed’s Louis Peitzman. For those who insist on viewing their mutual affection through a heterosexual lens, it doubles as a sweet portrayal of warm ‘n fuzzy male friendship, a topic that’s itself underserved in movies and TV. Either way, their relationship conveniently exists in a world uncomplicated by the existence of Joe’s wife Sofia Vergara.
It’s possible that some viewers may long for less ambiguity regarding Pee-wee’s Big Holiday love life — in which he enjoys wholly chaste encounters with both Manganiello and Alia Shawkat’s girl-gang member — taking issue with how it’s all glossed over with a ‘50s-style patina. Others may not “get” Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, though I’d counter-theorize that those people have no capacity for joy and need to chillax with a root beer barrel and a tiny straw [REFERENCE!].
Ultimately, Reubens has never wavered from the message of acceptance that underlies Pee-wee’s good-hearted oddball silliness, which kept me tuning in to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse every Saturday as a tiny fellow weirdo. And the notion that the magic and mystery in being different can supplant the loneliness of it is a powerful one. Like many of Pee-wee’s devotees, even back then I longed to hear what his new friend Penny (!) tells him as they ride a flying car in Big Holiday: "I knew you weren't from around here. You stick out! You've got 'cosmopolitan' written all over you."
ScreenCrush: Paul Reubens + Joe Manganiello Talk 'Pee-Wee's Big Holiday'