SXSW: “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” rides nostalgia, suffers from lackluster writing

Charles Liu

The opening minutes of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” are just like those of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” – Paul Reubens’ lovable man-child leaps out of his slumber and prepares for another big day, using hefty gadgets and the most cartoony of methods to  get dressed and eat breakfast. Fans of Pee-wee Herman will take pleasure in Reubens’ invitation to return to Fairville, but they won’t remember it long afterward.

This Pee-wee adventure finds him on, as the title announces, a big holiday. It begins when cool guy Joe Manganiello (played by himself) stops by as he’s passing through town and hits it off with Pee-wee. After they share their love for root beer barrels and milkshakes, Manganiello invites Pee-wee to his birthday party in Manhattan. So Pee-wee sets off for New York City, finding himself in increasingly zany situations. But simply being creatively absurd and relentlessly silly isn’t enough to warrant laughter, and the script, by Reubens and Paul Rust, lacks comedic punch.

“Big Holiday” divides Pee-wee’s trip into a series of skits. This leaves the middle section of the film disjointed – it lacks the connective tissue “Big Adventure” had for its journey. It doesn’t help that some of these skits, whether it’s Pee-wee’s stay at a farmer’s house and his difficulties with the farmer’s nine curvy daughters, or his run-in with the Amish and his demonstration of how to have fun with balloons, just aren’t witty, even if they are colorful and visually delightful. Director Lee, Reubens and Rust sustain these jokes far longer than necessary, leaving much of the movie hard to sit through.

Of course, “Big Holiday” will find far more success with youngsters, but it seems to forget that Pee-wee’s appeal has always been his ability to entertain both adults and children. Reubens originally fashioned the character for grownups, and the original “The Pee-wee Herman Show” was riddled with innuendo. Though the character’s more inappropriate traits were toned down as he transitioned into children’s programming, “Big Adventure” and other subsequent Pee-wee works were always accessible to all ages. “Big Holiday” is not the one-of-a-kind classic “Big Adventure” was, and it doesn’t recapture the franchise’s former charm.

Reubens doesn’t seem to have aged a day as Pee-wee, and he falls into the character with confident ease, delivering a stellar physical performance. Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t give him enough material to work with, and his best scenes are the ones with Manganiello, who fantastically plays against his macho man type. It’s sweet and cute to see Pee-wee and Manganiello find kindred spirits in one another, and it’s downright absurd to watch Magnaniello pout and throw a tantrum when he thinks Pee-wee isn’t turning up for his party.

“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” rides high on the nostalgia wave, and for some, that may be enough. But it simply doesn’t stand on its own as a strong work, serving as a reminder of a better, funnier past for the man who doesn’t grow up.

  • “Pee wee’s Big Holiday”
  • Running Time: 89 minutes
  • Rating: N/A
  • Score: 2/5 stars