Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

Director: John Lee
Starring: Paul Reubens, Joe Magnaniello, Jessica Pohly, Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz, Brad William Henke, Hal Landon Jr., Diane Salinger, Patrick Egan, Tara Buck
Running Time: 89 min.
Rating: PG

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Any analysis or criticism of Pee-wee's Big Holiday should be prefaced with the acknowledgment that Paul Reubens is a comic genius and the stage character he created in the late 70's, but perfected in the mid 80's with his own Saturday morning children's program and two feature films, is a national treasure. Whatever went wrong with this effort can't fall on Reubens, regardless of the fact he happens to share a screenwriting credit on it. I'd like to believe his contributions were likely limited to whatever was needed to finally get this made. And after 25 years of waiting for this, can you really blame him? While we know he's been working Pee-wee comeback scripts for years, we also know their descriptions don't even slightly resemble what's seen here. And therein lies the problem. Despite the excruciating wait, this somehow still feels like a rush job unbefitting his unique talent.

Big Holiday isn't exactly a poor film, but it's just kind of there, containing occasional moments of inspired lunacy and inside jokes that capture prime Pee-wee and should moderately succeed at bringing grins to fans' faces. All things considered, it's actually pretty decent. It just doesn't feel important and there's this undercurrent of apathy that permeates through the low-budgeted picture, making it feel very "made-for-TV." Of course, it is, and this shouldn't be a bad thing considering the quality of most of what's on TV now far surpasses that of feature films. But with a larger than life character like Pee-wee, it's a problem. It's almost as if a committee got together and agreed to paint with only the broadest strokes possible in order to churn this out. "There. He's back. Happy now?"

Even if I can accept the excuse that we should all just be happy to see him again and don't deserve more, Reubens and the character sure do. Since the industry still seems to strangely insist he continue paying for a mistake he made decades ago, this project could almost be viewed as the latest punishment. Okay, maybe it's not that bad. But after a really promising premise, it starts to drag its feet in an effort to mimic Pee-wee's Big Adventure, making its trim 89 minutes start to feel far longer. Director John Lee does an adequate job with what he's given, but he's no Tim Burton, nor does anyone expect him to be. Tim Burton isn't even Tim Burton anymore. But there's nothing wrong with admitting we expected better, no matter how much it stings to say it.

Grey-suited, red-bow tied man-child Pee-wee Herman (Reubens) lives in the idyllic town of Fairville, rising each morning to repeat the same routine of hopping into his car, grabbing breakfast and greeting well-wishers on his way to his job as a short-order cook at Dan's Diner. It's there where he meets actor Joe Manganiello (actor Joe Manganiello), who Pee-wee only knows as a really cool guy on a motorcycle. After mixing Joe one of the "top 5" best chocolate shakes he's had in his life, the two discover they actually have a lot in common and become fast friends, leading to an invitation to Joe's upcoming birthday party in New York City. One problem: Pee-wee's never left his comfort zone of Fairville and has little desire to. But with Joe urging to take some risks and live a little, Pee-Wee embarks on his very first holiday, traveling cross-country and, of course, meeting some unusual characters along the way.

If there any jarring aspects to this journey, Pee-wee Herman isn't one of them, as he's preserved exactly as we remember him. In more ways than one. Thanks to even more make-up than usual and some invisibly impressive digital re-touching, the character hardly looks like he's aged a day. It was the right decision since we'd need to get around the reality that Reubens is in his early sixties now and the very nature of the Pee-wee character is rooted in his childlike demeanor and appearance. He remains frozen in a perpetual state of youthfulness, a concept that couldn't be more relevant to the film's narrative. For everything that does look cheap and low-budget here, it's a relief that those effects don't, further de-aging an actor who already looks younger than his age. Of course, an even easier solution would have been not waiting so damn long to make the movie.

As expected, Reubens slips back into the role like he never left and his performance is consistently likable and tonally on point, even when the material he's working with isn't. That should be a given, but after all this time there's no guarantees, so the film earns most of its big points there, and with the general thematic outline of the story. Then the praise starts dwindling and it's my sneaking suspicion that's where most of Reubens' creative input ended. It can't be proven, but I'll go out on a limb and hypothesize that producer Judd Apatow and Netflix executives "finessed" his ideas (which were likely edgier and more subversive), molding them into much of what the final product became. This theory could either be completely wrong, or perhaps scarier, that description may represent a tamer, more diplomatic version of what happened. Let's go with the former since the thought of Reubens having to severely compromise his creativity is too depressing to entertain.

Stuck in his daily routine, the change-resistant Pee-wee Herman's Pleasantville-esque hometown of Fairville is a great starting point that works to not only satisfy fans with a reintroduction, but gives newer viewers a glimpse into what he's all about. It only makes sense that this grown man who acts like a five-year old would be so set in his ways, opposing growth of any kind. Nearly everything that occurs in Fairville works, including Joe Manganiello's fun performance as "himself," proving wrong those who thought Pee-wee sharing the screen with a semi-famous co-star would be a distraction. If anything, there scenes together prove to be the film's highlight, as Pee-wee's obliviousness to the actor's identity and career turns into one of their best exchanges.

It's when we hit the road that things start to go downhill, or at least seem more hit-or-miss in terms of humor. While the clear inspiration for this journey is 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, this film hasn't nearly the same scope or novelty to get away with that so it feels less like a spiritual sequel than an inferior copy. But we're apparently forgetting that film existed since they claim the character has never left his homtown or been on a vacation of any kind. The comic pit-stops vary in quality, with the worst taking up the most amount of screen time, as a 50's inspired biker gang of women bank robbers (played by Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz and Alia Shawkat) ripped right out of a Russ Meyer film kidnap Pee-wee. Better is his encounter with a farmer (Hal Landon Jr.) whose nine daughters each want a piece of him, but even that joke eventually wears out its welcome before being beaten into the ground.

Intermittent moments of genuine warmth and comedy are occasionally overshadowed by this feeling that something's off with tone or gags just simply drag on endlessly without a satisfying payoff. The exceptions involve two wonderful turns from Patrick Egan as a traveling salesman and Big Adventure alum Diane Salinger as a Katharine Hepburn-inspired aviator with a flying car. Those segments really hit the mark, as do Pee-Wee's fantasy flashforward sequences at Joe's party. Unfortunately, by the third act, the action feels like such a slog I was looking at my watch wondering if he'd ever get there. And when he actually does, it's actually kind of a letdown. Luckily, Mark Mothersbaugh's score does an effective job capturing the magical whimsy of Pee-wee's universe better than perhaps the screenplay does.

It's doubtful anyone was under the illusion that Pee-wee Herman would return in exactly the same capacity he left us over 25 years ago, nor would we necessarily want him to. Time has passed and that would be impossible. But what went wrong with this project speaks to a larger problem evident in the shocking lack of promotion for what should have been a big deal. Studios want to reap the rewards of cashing in on nostalgia without the monetary risk that comes from going all in, so they only dip their feet in the water. Yes, it's great to see him again, and even with all its flaws, it's a testament to Reubens' talent that the originality of his creation still manages to still shine through. And for that, Pee-wee's Big Holiday couldn't possibly go down as a complete disappointment. Just a partial one. 

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