Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pee-Wee Watch: Pee-Wee's Big Holiday (2016)

As Netflix continues its move to "purveyor of original, on-demand content (and some other crap)", they've done a fine job of finding content and talent that folks have a fondness for and bringing it back.  Your mileage will vary on these projects, but you have to admire the full-blown production values of the projects.  How the hell they do Daredevil on a a TV budget still blows my mind - and I assume that show costs a whole lotta dough per episode.

We haven't seen much of Pee-Wee Herman since the conclusion of the fantastic Pee-Wee's Playhouse, a highlight of late-80's Saturday morning TV.   Pee-Wee actor Paul Reubens was embroiled in a minor legal snafu which - in a very different era - did some damage to his career.  I dunno.  I was in high school at the time it happened, but I didn't really get what the big deal was.*

The thing is - the older I get, the more I appreciate Reubens' work and character.  It's so weirdly brilliant.  And he's so sincere in his dedication to the character, which seems like some expression of his Id, if I understood what terms like "Id" mean.  But following Pee-Wee/ Reubens on social media is a wild ride into the silly and the mundanely silly.  It may not be an appreciation of the absurd that translates well to the Millennials who don't really share the reference of being swamped in mid-20th-Century marketing and artifacts.  And, the era that spawned Pee-Wee, the late Boomers who spawned everything from punk to personal computing to Saturday Night Live, were reflecting back their experience via comedy that was really depending on what we now call "meta" association with common cultural touchstones.

But you don't need to necessarily get those things to enjoy Reubens' manic energy as the world's sweetest/ oldest/ most ambiguous boy.  It's not like the kids watching Pee-Wee's Playhouse were performing a deconstructive analysis of the show.

Let me be honest, I wasn't expecting much out of Pee-Wee's Big Holiday (2016), the new, straight-to-Netflix feature comedy starring Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) and Joe Manganiello (playing, convincingly, Joe Manganiello).   Maybe some fond laughs remembering how much I liked Pee-Wee's Big Adventure as both a kid and adult (and if you haven't seen that movie in a while, it is absolutely hilarious.  You'll now get all the stuff you missed as a kid.), maybe some fondness for Reubens would create some shining moments, but, you know, Pee-Wee had a movie or two after Big Adventure, and it didn't necessarily work.  Not like Playhouse or Big Adventure.    

While there's no question Pee-Wee's Big Holiday echoes the road trip/ fish-out-of-water format of Big Adventure, much like The Force Awakens, it feels like a re-set to get back to basics, remind the viewer how this works in a form that may recall prior installments, but is different enough that you give it some slack.

Pee-Wee is Pee-Wee, living in the small town of Fairville, population under 1000, which he has never left.  Everything he needs is right there.  It's ideal-small-town, USA.  While working the counter at Dan's Diner on a lazy afternoon, Joe Manganiello swings through on his motorcycle and he and Pee-Wee hit it off.  I mean, really hit it off.  It's the kind of scene that would just be cheesy elsewhere, but with Reubens' timing and spin, what should feel like a five second gag just builds and builds.

Manganiello invites Pee-Wee to join him in New York for his birthday party, and Pee-Wee, inspired by his new best friend, heads out to meet the world.

Less recycling than motifs, we still get references to shaggy dog stories, the novelty items sold out of comics in the 20th Century actually deliver on their promise, and Pee-Wee's world is one of good cheer where everyone speaks with exclamation points.  And strangers are just friends you haven't met yet.

While 30 years has put some age on Pee-Wee's stable of friends/ actors, you see some familiar faces.   The actress who played Simone in Big Adventure shows up as... it's hard to explain.  Lynne Marie Stewart who played Miss Yvonne with Pee-Wee plays a Snake Farm employee.  But it's also clear a lot of people were willing to just show up so they could be in a Pee-Wee Herman movie.   Look for Nicole Sullivan as Manganiello's personal assistant and two seconds of David Arquette as a DJ.  Alia Shawkat as "Bella".  

Mostly, the movie is just fun.  It's funny, certainly, and the best moments were the ones where you kind of knew where this was going, but then Pee-Wee took it to new heights.  And, of course, we get to see Abraham Lincoln.  It's not Pee-Wee without Honest Abe in there somehow.

Don't expect the movie of the year, but don't write it off, either.  You can't say it isn't ridiculous.  It is.  But that's the point, after all.  It's entirely possible I was just really, really ready for this movie last night, but I truly liked it.  This is my favorite modern comedy in a long, long time.

*actor/ comedian Fred Willard was recently caught for the same thing and literally not one person cared

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