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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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Milwaukee Film Festival presents "Beauty is Embarrassing" Oct. 2 and 4.
Milwaukee Film Festival presents "Beauty is Embarrassing" Oct. 2 and 4.

"Beauty is Embarrassing" celebrates Wayne White's colorful life

Funny, smart and delightfully in-your-face: they're not your typical descriptors for a documentary, but they fit "Beauty is Embarrassing" to a tee.

This slightly off-kilter style is courtesy of subject Wayne White, irreverent artist and designer of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." He pilots the 87-minute journey through his life and career with wry modesty and, together with commentary from collaborators Matt Groening, Paul Reubens and others, gives the audience a look inside his topsy-turvy past, present and future.

As if the description wasn't enough to convince you how unconventional this doc really is, director Neil Berkeley chooses to set the tone almost immediately with a sample of White's brazenly entertaining artworks. The presentation is paired with White's own deadpan commentary as he delivers his statements about his detailed scenes, which each come emblazoned with their own middle-finger-to-society word or phrase.

The multi-talented White comes off likeable from the outset. He discusses his work, his family and his past creative endeavors with exactly the same good-natured attitude. His recollections of his art catalog's less-than-positive early critiques and his musings over his multiple awards are equally genuine and self-deprecating.

After watching him gleefully show off his brash art pieces and muse over his family of artists (which includes his wife and two adult children), you get the sense that he's not just thumbing his nose at society's conventions, but rather taking them with a grain of salt as companion pieces to his true love for his work, friends and relatives.

This point is made even clearer as "Beauty" moves from his latest work in the art world to discuss his years growing up and starting out in his career. It backtracks to his early years in Tennessee and his first creative pursuits leading up to college. These years are documented not just by White, but by his close family, a handful of school friends and even an old teacher – a close-knit circle of people that speaks silent volumes about White's down-to-earth sensibilities.

The contributions don't stop once "Beauty" moves on to cover White's big-time beginnings in New York and California, either. Adding past "Pee-Wee" contributors, peers from the comedy and art world, art professionals and others gives a great sense of just how big White's impact was as a professional and as a person.

They continue through White's career and "Beauty" recounts his skyrocketing success during the first season piecing together "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" in a New York loft through "Pee-Wee"'s heyday, his work with the Smashing Pumpkins and numerous other television shows.

White has every reason to indulge in bragging, but he's constantly humble. He instead takes every opportunity to discuss his inventive side projects, going into detail about everything from his scrap heap at home to "Flocked Box," the rated-R parallel to "Pee-Wee" he and the crew filmed during downtime. He even approaches the negative, including his later career slump and depression, with a matter-of-fact frankness.

As a documentary, "Beauty" transitions quickly and as a result comes off scattered in places. However, it's smartly framed with a few of White's speaking engagements, which helps map the film's trek through his life's milestones and keep things connected enough to a largely cohesive end. The occasional disjointedness is easily forgiven, though – White's amusing eccentricity and honest demeanor are too compelling for the audience to care about picky details, and by that measure, "Beauty is Embarrassing" is a rousing success.

"Beauty is Embarrassing" shows Oct. 2 at 6:45 p.m. and Oct. 4 at 9 p.m. at the Fox-Bay Cinema and Oriental Theatre.

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