‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’ Is Netflix Nostalgia Programming Done (Mostly) Right

The opening scenes of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday may give you pause, and understandably so – particularly if you watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Netflix’s previous original feature film/transparent nostalgia play. That 16-years-coming sequel was, in many ways, less a follow-up than a remake, blatantly marking the narrative beats of its predecessor. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, a 31-years-coming sequel to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, begins by hitting some very familiar notes. Luckily, director John Lee, producer Judd Apatow, and Paul Reubens’ new co-writer Paul Rust eventually find their own way, creating an uneven but mostly successful return to Pee-wee’s singular universe.

But they do start carefully. Not that you can blame them; the muted commercial and critical response to 1989’s Big Top Pee-wee made clear that you shouldn’t futz with the formula too much, so Big Holiday begins, just as Big Adventure did, with a goofy dream sequence, followed by a typical early morning for our hero (Paul Reubens), filled with elaborate, Rube Goldberg-ian inventions and devices. There is a Dottie figure, in the form of blonde librarian Emily, to make the somewhat asexual Pee-wee uncomfortable with her overtures; there are little winks in dialogue to the first film (“I have kinda limited experience on a motorcycle”).

Paul Reubens and Joe Manganiello in "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday."
Paul Reubens and Joe Manganiello in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”

Yet Pee-wee’s world is more specific this time around. Rather than the vaguely retro universe of his earlier pictures (and of Pee-wee’s Playhouse on TV), this Pee-wee lives in Fairville, California, where the cars, wardrobes, businesses, and (very white) people all seem airlifted in from the 1950s. “I don’t ever wanna go anywhere or try anything,” he says, insisting that he’s never been beyond the city limits, which I guess classifies his road trip to Hollywood in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as some sort of alternate reality – or, more likely, that this is another adventure for “Pee-wee Herman,” just as the films of Chaplin or Keaton featured the same character, but not the same person, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, into this snoozy suburban outpost cruises dreamy Magic Mike star Joe Manganiello, who has an immediate rapport with – and, dare I say, attraction to? – our hero. He invites Pee-wee to come to his classy celebrity birthday party in New York City five days hence, and encourages him to shake his little town off him and see the country along the way. “Live a little,” he advises. And Pee-wee takes him up on it.

What follows is occasionally uproarious, often at least amusing, and sometimes puzzling. Reubens and Rust’s script flirts with cohesion; such a big deal is made of his hometown’s stuck-in-the-’50s time-warp that when his first encounter outside of it is with a bad-girl gang straight out of Faster Pussycat, it seemed that Pee-wee was going on a journey both physical and chronological, moving through time as he moved across country.

Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman in "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday."
Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman in “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.”

Alas, no such luck. Pee-wee’s journey is a scattershot bit of business, a series of blackout sketches that miss as often as they hit, with no real unity or drive. And yes, you can say that about Pee-wee’s Big Adventure – but in that film, the gags pretty much all land. Here, particularly in the saggy middle, there are real stumbles – a bit at an Amish community, a nowhere sketch with a Grizzly Adams clone, and (worst of all) a ride with a quartet of sassy African-American hair stylists. And the decidedly ‘80s references of its opening and closing set pieces can make the whole thing feel a bit musty, as though some of the material was written for Big Adventure and has been sitting on the shelf ever since.

But when it’s funny, it’s very, very funny. Director Lee (The Heart, She Holler) folds in the flights of fancy snugly, and in its best moments – the big “Hello, New York” song leaps to mind – he gets at the manic energy that makes this character work. And the entire Manganiello angle is a hoot, particularly when (good sport that he is) he’s depicted in his NYC penthouse as some sort of mega-celebrity cross between George Clooney and Batman. But the most intriguing element here – and the most notable departure from the original Pee-wee movie, all those years ago – is how the film approaches him with regards to Pee-wee’s sexuality; there’s much talk about friendship, and an innocence to their relationship, but Pee-wee dreams about Manganiello every night of the trip, his visions of the big party initially featuring cake and sparklers and ice cream, and then (ahem) the two men on horseback, jousting.

As with some of Netflix’s lesser nostalgia dives, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday can’t avoid the sense of its own staleness – I can’t decide if it’s impressive or creepy, how much Reubens looks the same, but there is something a little disturbing about a man who can collect Social Security (he’s 63 — look it up!) prancing and growling like this, no longer able to hit the higher squeals of his distinctive register. So be it. We should’ve had a new Pee-wee movie years ago; this one’s a tad uneven, but all in all, it’ll do.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is now streaming on Netflix.