Pee-wee Herman was born in a sketch comedy show in 1977, and in the four decades since, he's screamed at his neighbors, befriended a chair, rescued his bike, joined the circus, and married a fruit salad. Now 38 and starring in Pee-wee's Big Holiday, he's regressed — or, really, born anew. This Pee-wee has't done any of that. He's never even left his small town of Fairville, the kind of pastel, poodle-skirt-wearing hamlet that GOP candidates dream of resurrecting.
Though his creator, Paul Reubens, is 63, Pee-wee remains an ageless child-tyrant, a fast-walking boy in a too-skinny suit whose belly only slightly strains his single jacket button. His stiff side-part and even more stubborn spirit remain unruffled by current affairs. Ask him about ISIS and he'd shrug, "ISIS-y!"
Pee-wee's Big Holiday, directed with glee by John Lee of Wonder Showzen and co-written by Reubens and Love's Paul Rust, isn't a sequel, reboot, or reimagining. This Netflix-produced-and-distributed feature is unattached to every TV show, play, or film that's come before. Refreshing-y! Pee-wee doesn't come saddled with backstory, like Batman. He's more like Mickey Mouse, an icon who can become anything he wants. Poof! Mickey's a steamboat captain. Poof! He's Bob Cratchit. Mickey and Pee-wee are ur-characters who can play any age and any era. All that matters is what they represent. For Mickey, that's courage confronting disaster. For Pee-wee, that's innocence. In Pee-wee Land, a tabloid would never shame a man for touching himself in an adult theater. In Pee-wee Land, mean tabloids don't even exist.
Poof! Today's Pee-wee is a short-order cook at a diner. (Who knew he could hold a job?) It's a shock to see him tie a greasy apron around his starched white shirt, and even more of a shock to see him happily obey orders, sizzling up plate after plate of hash browns and omelets.
Suddenly, with the entrance of Joe Manganiello – the actual Joe Manganiello – Pee-wee's quiet life changes. He makes Joe a milkshake, locking eyes with his hunky customer as he scoops ice cream. Is this flirting? With Pee-wee, who knows? Here, he flirts with everyone and no one – an alien, a bank-robbing bombshell, a root-beer barrel – but when a country girl breaks into his bedroom, he screams, "I'm saving myself for marriage!" And when Joe asks if he's seen Magic Mike, Pee-wee deadpans, "You'd think so, but no."
Hot or not, Joe and Pee-wee are soul-mates. They're an odd couple: the scruffy-faced manliest man in the movies, and a twerp who can't grow a whisker. Yet they're a perfect match. Manganiello's also a human cartoon; like his real-life wife, Sofia Vergara, he uses his beauty as a joke. Vergara combines the swagger of Mae West with the looks of, well, Sofia Vergara. She seizes control of her own image and refuses to just be the camera's trophy. You can see her lessons in Big Holiday. When Pee-wee closes his eyes and dreams of Joe, the heartthrob bounces in slow-mo and gushes in Spanish, "¡Perfecto!"
The plot tracks Pee-wee's cross-country journey to make it to Joe's birthday party in New York. The point is every pit stop in between. No sooner has the "sweetest boy in Fairville" seen his first stoplight than his car is hijacked by three tarts who've just robbed a savings and loan. The girls are a vision: Lead villainess Pepper (Jessica Pohly) strutted onscreen straight from Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, while Bella (Alia Shawkat) is more beautiful than I've ever seen her before, a cuddly kitten in white mohair with curves that defy gravity. As for third vixen Freckles (Stephanie Beatriz, Brooklyn Nine Nine), she gets what passes for the dirtiest joke in the movie. When Pepper orders her to hand her a tissue, Freckles starts to grab one from her bra — and then the camera blushes and looks away.
And from there, Pee-wee's Big Holiday is off, and we're overjoyed to hitch a ride. Don't bother comparing it to Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Director Lee doesn't; he makes just two nods to Tim Burton, and they're both inspired by Beetlejuice. This Pee-wee is his own man … er, man-child. And he controls the film with fresh confidence.
Turns out all we need in a new Pee-wee movie is a shot of Paul Reubens holding a balloon. His Pee-wee starts to blow it up. He keeps blowing. Then he lets it deflate. The joke lasts a full minute but feels like decades. I laughed so long that I started to cry.
Screw irony. Screw nostalgia. Even four decades later, Pee-wee's forever young.