For the supposed future of television and movies, Netflix has sure spent a lot of time recently digging through the past.
The company had already went the "Weekend at Bernie’s" route – successfully, more or less – with "Wet Hot American Summer," "Mr. Show" and "Arrested Development" before last month wandering into the TV graveyard’s less desirable plots and attempting to reanimate the corpse of "Full House" to predictably messy results. Judging by its recent announcement of a new "Gilmore Girls" season and a quietly in-the-works "Lost in Space" reboot (because that went so well the last time), Netflix’s grave-robbing ways don’t appear to be a passing hobby either.
And that’s just on the television side of things. Of the three original features Netflix has distributed, one was a sequel to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" – a movie old enough to get its driver’s license now – and the other was an Adam Sandler movie, a man whose current career is all about lazily cashing the checks his long-gone past has written for him.
Perhaps it’s all too fitting that Netflix’s fourth motion picture offering would be "Pee-wee’s Big Holiday," a nostalgia trip featuring a man-boy who still has yet to ever grow up. The good news: This is still the Pee-wee character you remember. The bad news? This isn’t the Pee-wee movie you’ll ever remember.
63-year-old (!) Paul Reubens enthusiastically steps back into the grey suit and red bowtie of Pee-wee Herman, living a simple life in the simple small town of Fairville – or at least as simple an existence the manic man-child inventor can lead. He still has his extravagant Rube Goldberg morning machines, and his opening moments are saying goodbye to a big eyed, six-nostriled alien. So yeah, all in all, pretty normal.
A little too normal, as Pee-wee’s fellow townsfolk tell him. While his friends are growing up and changing, he’s stuck being the same old Pee-wee who’s never even left Fairville (the events of "Big Adventure" must’ve been just a crazy acid dream … which makes a lot of sense, actually). Thankfully, who should walk into Pee-wee’s diner than Joe Manganiello, playing the role he was born to play: Joe Manganiello. The actor and man-squirrel quickly hatch a friendship, with Manganiello eventually inviting Pee-wee to his birthday soiree … in New York City, forcing Pee-wee to finally leave Fairville and see the world. And this may surprise you, but shenanigans ensue.
Any success a Pee-wee Herman story hopes to have rests almost entirely on who else but Pee-wee Herman himself. Luckily, despite now being overqualified for an AARP card, Reubens doesn’t seem to have lost a single step – or gained a single gray hair or wrinkle. It’s almost unsettling how little he appears to have aged (where’s the fountain of youth, Mr. Reubens? We’ll get the answer from either you or Paul Rudd; it doesn’t matter which), but more importantly, he still has the character’s same delightfully weird boyish and eager spirit. If even a touch of age and weariness showed, the experience of a new Pee-wee Herman movie could’ve been deflating. Instead, between the big animated expressions, the vocal tics and the nimble wordplay, the youthful enthusiasm lives on.
"Big Holiday" also helps Reubens out by giving him quite the amusing bromantic companion – this is, after all, an Apatow production now – with Manganiello. The "True Blood" vet plays the role serious – I’d say he plays it straight, but there’s more than a little homosexual undercurrent to their friendship, one that plays quite sweet – but with an earnest enthusiasm under the grounding. Anyone who saw him in "Magic Mike XXL" knows he’s a perfect fit for Pee-wee’s universe: a big guy with a bigger, boyish heart worn on his sleeve (sleeves attached to his shirt, which – sorry ladies – stays on the whole movie). Their scenes together – unfortunately just near the beginning and the end with the occasional dream drop-in – are the most fun (AHHHHHH! SECRET WORD!) parts of "Big Holiday."
As for the rest of Pee-wee’s new big adventure, it’s all quite sweet and charming, running into mishaps with the Amish, some Russ Meyer-esque sexy swindlers, a snake farm and other crazy characters. Like its predecessors, the jokes rarely draw laugh-our-loud reactions, but they usually leave a goofy grin – if only from the youthful vigor put into them. The same innocent enthusiasm that turned the weird man-boy wonder into a television and film sensation remains unfettered.
Unfortunately, while the character is still an oddly special creation, there’s little special about this particular journey. Director John Lee (a veteran of "Broad City," "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Wonder Showzen") keeps things light and pleasant, but the crazily creative visuals Pee-wee is typically synonymous with are all but missing in action. This is a character who had a house with faces on everything and who gave Tim Burton’s bizarro vision its start, yet not an image in "Big Holiday" sticks in the mind. Maybe a Paul Reubens devil? Or a four-person U.S.A. afro? Or Manganiello and Reubens having a joust on piñatas? Even that last one sounds crazier than it plays.
Meanwhile, save for Manganiello, all of the new characters and groups Pee-wee winds up with on his travels are amusing enough, but not particularly great when it comes to memorable gags or moments. The Amish are fun (AHHHHH! SECRET WORD AGAIN!) but the jokes are mostly what you expect. As for the "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" lady thieves, for some of the most reoccurring characters, they don’t provide a lot of laughs – and the resulting tender relationship between Alia Shawkat’s young gang member and the 63-year-old Pee-wee is, um, peculiar. It’s the only part where Reubens’ age feels like a noticeable issue; some bigger laughs might have helped cover that.
Obviously Pee-wee Herman was never intended to be a deep, thoughtful character, but throughout "Big Holiday," the movie simply feels lighter and more weightless than it feels a feature length adventure should. Perhaps it’s because of the Netflix format and the resulting studio perspective, one that channels programming less to be savored and more just to be binged, to be quickly snacked upon, digested and evacuated to make room for the next binge. Obviously you don’t binge watch a movie, but that’s how "Big Holiday" plays: a quick fix for a craving, but too flimsy (AHHHHH! THE OTHER SECRET WORD!) to satisfy a real hunger.
Once again, no, Pee-wee isn’t heavy material, nor was it ever intended to be, and as a quick sweet tooth sugar rush, his latest romp is an enjoyable, energetic way to waste 90 minutes. This trip back in time isn't stepping on any butterflies. But as "Big Holiday" itself says, it's sometimes a good thing to change, to mix things up. Instead, Netflix – and the rest of Hollywood for that matter – are all too eager to cash in on your memories without bothering to make any new ones.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.