Pee-wee Herman’s return in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is, like so many revivals, a mixed blessing that appeals to our sense of nostalgia while only doing a so-so job of recreating the thing we’re nostalgic for. Written by Pee-wee himself (aka Paul Reubens) and “Comedy Bang! Bang!” scribe Paul Rust, this sunny new adventure has its share of absurd laughs and a coy, 21st-century understanding of sexuality that is intriguing (and subtle; the kids’ll miss it). But it never reaches the delirious heights of whimsy that it so clearly aims for.
To start with, Pee-wee looks the same as we remember him, but his voice is different — lower in pitch and intensity, less manic, less nasal. Can Paul Reubens, who is 63 and has been playing the character since his mid-20s, no longer make his voice do what Pee-wee’s voice used to do? Or was it a deliberate choice to tone him down a little, make him less cartoonish? Either way, it’s unfortunate. Often, this Pee-wee comes across not as a mischievous man-boy totally separate from our reality, but as one of any number of real-life repressed gay men in bow ties.
The character isn’t nearly as funny or endearing when he’s not over the top, but if you can get past that, it’s relatively smooth sailing. In this version of Pee-wee’s life (he seems to reset after each adventure), he’s a short-order cook at a diner who’s never left his hometown of Fairville. He’s just starting to feel like a loser whom nobody understands when he meets someone who shares his opinions on important things like candy. This person is Joe Manganiello, the actor, playing himself. Pee-wee’s never heard of him.
“Certainly you’ve heard of ‘True Blood’?”
“You’d think so, but no.”
This conversation takes place as the two are bonding over the elaborate miniature model of Fairville that Pee-wee has in his backyard, becoming fast friends and soulmates. Pee-wee’s knowing reference to “Magic Mike” (the movie about male strippers) signals that it’s OK for us to wonder about his sexuality, which jibes with his fawning giddiness over Joe.
The bulk of the film has Pee-wee on a cross-country road trip, finally leaving home so he can get to New York for Joe’s birthday party. He has a series of amusing encounters along the way with an Amish community, a cave-dwelling mountain man (Brad William Henke), a Katherine Hepburn-y aviatrix (Diane Louise Salinger), a widowed farmer with nine lovely daughters, and more. Some of these vignettes are better than others, but all are short enough not to be a nuisance when they don’t work.
Reubens and his director, John Lee (who’s worked on envelope-pushing TV comedies like “Wonder Showzen” and “Broad City”), know exactly what they’re doing with the hints about Pee-wee, and it works on two levels. On the surface, here’s a silly situation where Pee-wee is stranded and must spend the night in a house with a farmer and his daughters, all of whom keep hitting on him. On a deeper level, this is a scenario from many a dirty joke, turned around so that the man (it’s usually a traveling salesman, isn’t it?) has no interest in the farmer’s daughters anyway, for reasons that are … unspecified. Kids and adults will both laugh at the scene, but if you asked them what makes it funny, they’d give different answers.
The movie never does say anything definitive about Pee-wee’s orientation, of course. Officially, he’s an asexual child-like creature, and the movie is about how great it is to have friends and not be alone. But it seems to me that as Reubens contemplated what (if anything) he’d need to modify for the character to work in 2016, it must have occurred to him that most adults can’t see a guy with Pee-wee’s mannerisms and style and not wonder, at least for a moment, what his deal is. And when the part of the plot that would ordinarily involve a romance has him instead pursuing the friendship of a strapping actor — an actor who sits in his room and pines for him, by the way — it’s almost inevitable that the thought will cross our minds. And when it does, the movie replies, with a wink, “Why, no! What in the world would make you think such a thing?” Oh, Pee-wee! You rascal.
B- (1 hr., 30 min.; )