Remember the Alamo

Alex Jovanovich on Pee-wee’s Big Holiday

John Lee, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, 2016, color, sound, 89 minutes.

SO IT APPEARS THAT The Archies have become “dark.” Due to a big brand revamp a few years ago, Riverdale’s now overrun with murder, zombies, witchcraft, and a fine powdering of incest. Who knew? It’s making Archie Comic Publications, Inc. a great deal of money, certainly—even NPR approves. But isn’t this Frank Millering of juvenilia a cynical and predictable strategy of revivification? If you want challenging literature about the vicissitudes and complicatedness of life, maybe grow up and read Tolstoy? Kathy Acker? Karl Ove Knausgård? Lena Dunham?

A new Pee-wee Herman movie from the inimitable Paul Reubens (paid for and released by Netflix), Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, starts streaming Friday. This scintillating new venture, long awaited but hardly overdue, could’ve easily taken an Archiean turn toward the morose, pandering to contemporary sensibilities. (It is, after all, produced by king of dudester fart comedy Judd Apatow and directed by John Lee, of the satanically brilliant looks-like-it’s-for-kids-but-it-definitely-isn’t MTV2 series Wonder Showzen [2005–2006].) Thankfully it doesn’t. Pee-wee’s always been twisted—that’s part of his DNA, his loveliness. But Pee-wee’s not the Joker—his humor will never handicap, orphan, or draw blood. Of course, it’s tempting to conflate Reubens’s personal foibles with the character he created (getting arrested for expressing a bit of erotic jouissance in a Sarasota porno theater in 1991; getting arrested again in 2002 for possessing “child pornography,” i.e., vintage twink pics à la Bob Mizer) for a hipper, more sexually “deviant” Pee-wee. But how interesting is that? Sex was always a part of Herman’s universe, but it’s playful, flirty, goofy. Dippy preadolescent insinuation is its draw, its strength—not pubey, sweaty full-frontal.

The genius of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the generously funded CBS children’s show that won a slew of daytime Emmys and ruled the latter half of the 1980s, was that it brought psychedelic East Village art-school freakiness to suburban kids everywhere. Playhouse didn’t water down its look, attitude, or style for anyone. It had punk illustrator Gary Panter on set design; Cyndi Lauper crooning along to Mark Mothersbaugh’s ragtime-meets–Banana Splits opening score; performance artist and comedian John Paragon as Jambi the Genie; and even a pre-Matrix Laurence Fishburne as the baby-faced and more-than-slightly gay Cowboy Curtis. Look at pictures of old performances from the Pyramid Club or Club 57, or watch Tom Rubnitz’s Pickle Surprise short from 1989, and compare them to Playhouse—the only discernible difference? Budgets.

Big Holiday is very close in spirit to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the 1985 movie that introduced Reubens/Herman to a wide audience. (It was Tim Burton’s first major movie too.) And, like Adventure, it’s a road-trip movie—not in search of a lost bike, but friendship—full of sight gags, corny jokes, and refreshingly lo-fi set pieces. Buxom he-man Joe Manganiello, playing “Joe Manganiello,” rides his hog into the wee town of Fairview—a tchotchke-laden paradise flush with 1960s decor and folksy manners—where Pee-wee’s an overworked helpmeet at the local diner. They become pretty fast “boy”-friends, bonding over milkshakes and root beer barrels. Before Joe goes back home—to New York—he invites Pee-wee to his upcoming birthday bash, daring him to leave his safe environs for a bit of fun and glamour. (“Breaking rules and breaking hearts is what life’s all about!” says Joe.) So Pee-wee goes, meeting a motley of open-road stereotypes—a traveling novelties salesman, Farmer Brown and his battalion of randy daughters, a Kate Hepburny heiress, among others—along the way. (The plotlines in Pee-wee movies are as complicated as an issue of Highlights magazine—Godard this is not.)

Reubens is now sixty-three—he moves, laughs, and screams with a little bit less of that famously manic Pee-wee energy (and, according to a recent New York Times interview, a great deal of the movie’s costs involved CGI makeup to make him look youthful…It works!). But the cheer, spirit, and weirdness is all there—canyon-loads of it—good for parents, and necessary for kids. Cameos and kitsch abound, including a fabulous Alia Shawkat, formerly of Arrested Development, as a tenderhearted female hood in a girl gang pulled straight out of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Big Holiday is cotton candy—fluffy, delightful, and sweet—as Pee-wee always was and as Pee-wee always will be, forever.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday premieres Friday, March 18, at 12:01 AM PST, on Netflix.