SXSW Review: 'Pee-Wee's Big Holiday' Is How Revivals Should Be Done
The Muppets. Ghostbusters. The Gilmore Girls. Lately it seems we’re inundated with resurrections of beloved childhood properties, for better and Fuller House. But thankfully, the Netflix original Pee-wee’s Big Holiday feels like it’s come straight from the bonkers brain of Paul Reubens, and not come back wrong Pet Sematary style.
It’s been almost thirty one years since Herman’s last big screen romp, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and nearly 26 since Pee-wee’s Playhouse wrapped. Yet Reubens slides back into his white loafers without missing a step. It helps that the guys hasn’t appeared to age, and thankfully neither has Pee-Wee. He still shies away from the girls who swoon for his bespoke grey suit. He still speaks in that signature silly voice, and proudly spouts impish catchphrases like “Let me let you let me go.” And he’s still a master of willfully childish physical comedy. One long take involving Herman “playing” a balloon to a rapt Amish community may sound like nothing special. But Reubens’ gift for guileless humor makes it giggle-fit hilarious.
Co-written by Reubens and Paul Rust (who stars in that other Netflix/Judd Apatow joint Love), Pee-wee’s Big Holiday trusts that audiences will still love Pee-Wee on his own terms. There’s no attempt to make him fresh, edgy and gritty. And there’s no need. Reubens’ shtick is still satisfyingly silly, surreal, and sweet. A road trip premise is perfect for throwing Pee-Wee into the path of colorful characters like flamboyant hairdressers and overly amorous farm girls, an emotional mountain man, a Katharine Hepburn-like aviatrix, and a trio of switch blade-wielding busty bank robbers (scene-stealers Stephanie Beatriz, Jessica Pohly, and Alia Shawkat) who seem like they tumbled out of a John Waters movie. But it’s Joe Manganiello, as a “triple cool” biker who rolls into Pee-wee’s quiet hometown, who proves Reuben’s best match.
The hulking hunk is a natural for goofy gags, and totally game to take on any wacky request Reubens’ and Rust’s script demands. I’m playing coy because I’d hate to spoil even a single surprise of their shared scenes, so rich with warmth and laughs that I ranted them to my mister like a kid coming home from the first day of school. (And then, and Then and THEN!). The pair bond over their love of a candy (root beer barrels FTW), and so begins an enviable friendship that inspires Pee-wee to travel and take chances, all for our delight. And delightful it is, jam-packed with daffy bits and punctuated with heart-warming earnestness.
The biggest risk Pee-wee’s Big Holiday takes is staying true to form, and it pays off big. Reubens is smart enough to not lean hard into nostalgia, avoiding old catchphrases and past gags. There’s no “I know you are but what am I” or “Tequila” dance (though “Why don’t you take a picture it’ll last longer!” gets a cheeky comeback.) But watching him return to the character that long defined his career made my heart swell like it did when Sylvester Stallone returned to Rocky for Creed. It’s not a reboot. It’s a return that reminds us why we loved the originals so much in the first place. Reubens and company have carefully crafted 99 minutes of kooky new material that will make you feel like a kid again, and a charmingly absurd finale that might just wring a tear or two out of you.
Kristy Puchko is a loner, Dottie. A rebel.
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