Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman surely belongs on the short list of iconic comedy creations, right up there with Buster Keaton and Chaplin’s Tramp, the Marx Brothers and Three Stooges, W.C. Fields and Abbott and Costello. You know exactly what you’re getting the instant any one of those people step on screen, which exact brand of anarchy, slapstick, and wordplay they have at their command. So it is with Pee-wee, whose close-fitting gray suit, dopey bowtie, slicked-back hair, honking laugh, and flailing limbs indicate a creepy innocence and ageless out-of-time contentment. He lives a Rube Goldberg machine life, one elaborate contraption and lucky happenstance at a time. His closest fictional relative would have to be SpongeBob, a similarly cartoonish childlike optimist eager to help his pals and have a good time while able to shake off bizarre setbacks with minimal fuss. We haven’t seen Pee-wee in quite some time. With the exception of a recent Broadway stint he’s been gone since 1988. The novelty of his reappearance goes a long way in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. It’s nice to see him.
At the movie’s start Pee-wee, appearing eerily unchanged, is in a rut. He moves through an idealized town, which looks like a Pleasantville frozen in the 50s, greeting the same stereotypical townspeople in the same ways every day. He’s can’t even bring himself to dream about leaving town. I’m not sure why the movie forgets about Pee-wee's Big Adventure in the 1985 Tim Burton film of the same name, but maybe it’s so we’re not reminded about that much better effort as this new one proceeds to lift the episodic road trip structure from it. So Pee-wee’s caught in a safe, comfortable, repetitive structure that’s broken when a cool guy (Joe Manganiello, playing a version of himself) rides into town on a motorcycle and quickly becomes his new best friend. Alas, Joe has to be going, but not before inviting Pee-wee to meet him in New York City for his upcoming birthday party. Hooray! It’s a road trip for Pee-wee, who abruptly quits his job in a diner (a la SpongeBob) and ambles east in his quirkiest, most whimsical way.
The journey goes all kinds of wrong, the screenplay by Reubens and Paul Rust leaving Pee-wee stranded repeatedly as he bounces from one eccentric stop to the next. He has run-ins with all manner of goofy characters, alternately vaguely menacing and gently off, including a gang of robber gals dressed like they’ve come from one of Russ Meyer’s tamer picture, a woodsman, Amish villagers, and a farmer desperate to marry off one of his nine overeager grown daughters. Some of these interludes are funnier than others, an uneven collection of sketches Pee-wee wanders into for a time before moving on, hoping he can make it to the birthday party on time. Overseeing the proceedings is John Lee, making his feature debut. He’s been a director on all sorts of TV comedy, from Wonder Showzen to Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, so he knows his way around building scenarios to best show off a comedian’s personality, skills, interests, and sense of timing. You can’t look at Pee-wee’s Big Holiday without admitting you’re seeing pure unadulterated ideas from Herman’s head.
Brightly lit and flatly staged, the whole thing is deeply frivolous, more enjoyable the more it sticks closely to a breezy effortless silliness. But it’s also clear Pee-wee works better when he has a collaborator instead of an enabler. Its format of loosely connected vignettes never quite builds or escalates like Burton’s film does; Lee is simply letting the gently surreal moments happen. Where Big Adventure knocks about with a vibrant imagination, Big Holiday simply ambles along from one mildly off-kilter peculiar scenario to the next. Still, it’s enough of a pleasant diversion to simply be back in the company of this oddball that by the time the deflation of the pokey and uneven qualities start to sink in it’s already well on its way to a conclusion. Sometimes very funny, it may not add up to much of a movie, but as a patchy excuse to see Reubens in action as his most notable character again, it’s not so bad.