‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’ Review: Paul Reubens’ Creation Returns, Delightfully

Netflix feature film retains the snarky-sweet spirit the made the 1980s icon so beloved

At 63, Paul Reubens may have a tougher time conveying the boyish mania of his most famous creation, but otherwise the ebullient, sweetly subversive spirit of Pee-wee Herman has been affectionately, miraculously restored in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”

Silly, uneven but also so offhandedly lovely that the slow stretches aren’t crippling, this Netflix original film follows along as the eternally youthful Pee-wee embarks on his latest fantastic voyage, racking up life lessons and gentle, consistent giggles along the way.

For those old enough to remember the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” TV series or Herman’s big-screen adventures, “Big Holiday” will offer fond nostalgia and, more importantly, a winningly big-hearted acceptance of oddballs and outsiders that feels like a tonic during a presidential election year that’s growing increasingly toxic.

Streaming on Netflix starting Friday, March 18, “Big Holiday” continues a Pee-wee renaissance that began with Reubens reactivating his Groundlings-created character during a 2010 stage show, ending a two-decade period in which the comic had mostly shelved Herman after a 1991 indecent exposure arrest.

Controversy now behind him, Reubens (who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Paul Rust, star of the Netflix series “Love”) plugs back into Pee-wee’s silly-voiced, gray-suited guise. The actor’s life may have changed radically since that arrest but, blessedly, Herman’s hasn’t at all.

As the film opens, Pee-wee contentedly works at a local diner in his beloved Fairville, uninterested in venturing beyond the small burg’s borders to see the rest of the world. That’s when he meets a charismatic out-of-towner named Joe (played by Joe Manganiello of “Magic Mike” fame) who inspires him to live life a little more boldly. (Netflix is asking reviewers to keep plot details vague so as not to ruin certain surprises. If you’re dying to know more, you can search around the Web a little, although it’s more fun to go into “Big Holiday” cold.)

Pee-wee’s journey is as episodic as the one he undertook in the 1985 film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” and so it’s not surprising that some stops along the way are more entertaining than others. But director John Lee, one of the creators of the skewed children’s-show satire “Wonder Showzen,” understands that what matters most in “Big Holiday” is the conjuring of a specific tone that has always been central to Herman’s appeal.

Both mocking and paying homage to the stifling conformity of 1950s America, Pee-wee’s weirdo-retro universe has, on its surface, always seemed genial and harmless, an assumption wickedly undercut by Reubens’ devilish mixture of earnest sentiment and smiling, screw-loose anarchy. The casual interplay of childlike innocence and sneakily adult innuendo gave “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” its air of sophistication, and that tonal combo is alive and well in “Big Holiday.”

It comes through most vividly, and touchingly, during Pee-wee’s run-in with Pepper (Jessica Pohly), Bella (Alia Shawkat) and Freckles (Stephanie Beatriz), three va-va-va-voom bank robbers who look like they’ve stepped straight out of a Russ Meyer film.

But they’re no mere sex objects, and just like everyone Pee-wee encounters along the way, they exist happily in their own loopy little realm, sometimes the butt of a joke but never judged or scorned by our kindly hero. (And when one of them ends up falling for Pee-wee, it’s as unexpected as it is understandable.) Socialites, rugged outdoorsmen, the Amish: They’re all part of the crazy-quilt design of this film’s portrait of America, and what’s most gratifying is how inconclusive that portrait is.

Maybe that’s because of the funny little man-child at the center of the action. Utilizing subtle digital retouching to make his face look younger, Reubens hasn’t altered Pee-wee’s temperament, which is both sarcastic and accepting, friendly but with a little snark behind it. The actor plays best off of Manganiello, the latter’s chiseled manliness a perfect counterpoint to Pee-wee’s pasty, scrawny hyperactivity.

But like everyone else who comes in contact with Herman, Joe can’t help but love the guy, and their burgeoning opposites-attract friendship never stops being delightful and amusing. To be sure, there are a lot of goofy, dopey, hit-or-miss jokes in “Big Holiday,” but it’s all held together by Reubens’ underlying belief that kindness and compassion help make the world a slightly better place. The film’s best trick is making that sentiment not seem corny but, instead, deeply hip.