A few thoughts on the Netflix original movie - which, as you probably guessed - is supremely gay.
By: Jimbo X
Of all the nearly-forgotten media relics to revive, why Pee-Wee Herman?
Indeed, in today’s new idea-strapped pop cultural wasteland, no property is too obscure or outmoded to resuscitate, just as long as it has some semblance of familiarity. Hence, the entire justification of Fuller House’s existence and why we’re getting sequels to The Conjuring, Now You See Me and Independence Day this summer.
The case of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is especially interesting in the fact that the character/intellectual property, for all intents and purposes, has been dead ever since Paul Reubens got caught spanking his monkey in a porno theater in 1991. Rather than revisiting the 1980s Saturday morning program Pee-Wee’s Playhouse – described by Douglas Rushkoff in his tome Media Virus! as more or less gay camp sanitized for the ankle biter set – this Netflix re-do is very much a sequel to the last Herman outing, 1988’s Big Top Pee-Wee. Alas, this newer film eschews a lot of the weird, phantasmagoric imagery that made Tim Burton’s original cinematic Pee-Wee foray so memorable, instead delivering a more straightforward absurdist romp with a lot more blatantly homoerotic subtext than the already remarkably homoerotic TV show.
The film begins with an E.T. parody, in which the titular character – Reubens, by the way, looks nearly identical to himself circa 1985 – says farewell to an alien pal named Yul. The dream sequence, which sets up Pee-Wee’s wanderlust, segues into the expected Rube Goldberg opening, which eventually dovetails into the thick of the plot. Pee-Wee – by convention, we have no idea how old the character is really supposed to be – works at a diner in a stereotypically perfect Norman Rockwell/Pleasantville burg. He spends his days gleefully reading pulp novels about scuba cops and jewel-stealing sharks and avoiding the advances of the well-stacked librarian, but one day, Joe Manganiello waltzes into the restaurant and asks for a milkshake and he and Pee-Wee bond over a mutual love of the same candies (their agreed-upon favorite is a miniature root beer barrel they like to poke with straws.) Uh, subtext much, guys? Manganiello advises Pee-Wee to bust out of his no-horse, 1950s-ish utopia and invites him to his upcoming birthday bash gala in New York City.
Of course, thanks take an unexpected detour as soon as Pee-Wee hits the road. First, he’s abducted by a trio of all-girl bank robbers (one of whom is also named Pee-Wee and kinda-almost-sorta has a romantic subplot going on with him) who later hit him with pillows while they dance with male strippers. After that, he winds up hitching a ride with a traveling salesman (his biggest seller are magnetized grocery bags you can leave on top of your car to prank people), only to get freaked out by a snake-themed tourist trap before being taken in by a farmer with nine fairly unkempt daughters (hooray for fat-shaming!) and is nearly cajoled into marrying one of them (his escape is facilitated by pretending to be a cowboy, naturally.) From there, things get even more chaotic, with Pee-Wee introducing the Amish to balloon farts and roughing it up with a rugged outdoorsman who is actually a disgraced certified public accountant with daddy issues. There’s also some brief bits about an older lady with a rocket car and a soul-singing groups whose hair is shaped like the continental U.S., but eh, they never really go anywhere.
Without spoiling too much of the movie, Pee-Wee does indeed make it to NYC just in time for Manganiello’s big birthday blowout, but as you probably imagined, things do end up going a bit awry. Rest assured, though, that the film has a happy – if not contrived – grand finale, with Pee-Wee learning the importance of friendship and travel.
On the whole, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday isn’t terrible. It starts off pretty strong and while nothing it truly riotously funny, it will make you chuckle a time or two. The pacing is solid as well, but the big thing holding this one back is the supporting cast. Stacy Keach and Nicole Sullivan (aka, what’s-her-name from Mad TV) are both wasted in complete throwaway roles, and none of Pee-Wee’s cast-mates really stand out as interesting, nuanced characters. Especially grating is Manganiello, literally playing himself, as the object of Pee-Wee’s budding bromance; of course, everything has to remain platonic on the surface level, but all those fantasy sequences where he and Pee-Wee ride piñatas and speak Spanish to each other in slow-motion cannot be read as anything even remotely resembling hetero subtextually OR contextually.
Reuben definitely does his part to make the character work, and his standalone performance as the Reagan-era throwback ALMOST holds the film together. I know the producers were trying to give the film a low-budget, anticlimactic feel, but the meat of the matter is that virtually nothing happens in the movie. It’s basically just the main character floating from one weird dialogue exchange to the next, and really, none of those interactions are all that interesting.
Ultimately, the movie is just an excuse to break out the grey tux and red bow tie one last time. It has its moments, to be sure, but nothing leads to a truly satisfying complete cinematic experience. The entire film, I just kept thinking to myself how much it reminded me of the narrative in Joe Dirt, which is most certainly NOT the kind of thing you want to have your motion picture compared to.
Had the film maintained the surreal campiness of the TV show – or even Herman’s pell-mell stage productions – the end result could have been a much more entertaining, if not downright subversive, offering. As is, though, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is little more than a fleeting retro piece, a warm-over that only slightly makes you wax nostalgic for the late 1980s and early 1990s.
That is, until you realize – just like the Pee-Wee character himself – that some things are better left buried in the fog of adolescence recollections.
Two Tofu Dogs out of Four