Nostalgia is such a powerful ingredient, with its built-in pleasures and built-in audience. And when you’re enjoying a nostalgic piece of entertainment, you get a warm feeling of superiority to boot: “Look, kids! This is what a movie/show/song should be. This is the good stuff.”
Since I am in the same age bracket as lots of people making stuff right now, my buffet of satisfying nostalgic ‘80s-’90s delights keeps coming. Pee-wee Herman is the perfect receptacle for nostalgia; his entire world is nostalgia, and he himself is ageless. He wears the same clothes every day and lives in a fantasy world of retro toys. And his weird humor is also ageless, equally appealing (or unappealing, or confounding) to kids and adults. Or, as my daughter put it, “I can’t tell if this is supposed to be funny or not.”
In our new quintessential viewing mode, Netflix, comes “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” produced by the quintessential comedy creator and champion of the man-child, Judd Apatow. Though decades have passed, Pee-wee still has an appeal that is both immediately obvious and on some level hard to pin down. In the obvious category, there is his house, a technicolor funhouse that, I am pleased to assure you, still wakes him up and launches him into his day with an endlessly delightful series of Rube Goldberg-esque gadgets.
Launched through his roof into a splendid little red toy car, he motors through his picture-perfect small town, to his job at a diner, where his hair nets are color coded to each day of the week, and regulars count on him as part of their clockwork existence.
When hunky actor Joe Manganiello comes through town on his motorcycle, he — improbably but charmingly — forms an instant bond with Pee-wee over a chocolate milkshake. His visit to Pee-wee’s house and his miniature version of the town set up one of the movie’s most charming and sweet jokes. Manganiello implores Pee-wee to attend his birthday party in four days in New York City, challenging Pee-wee to leave his small town for the first time ever.
That is the plot, such as it is, which is just an excuse for Pee-wee to encounter a series of strange characters and inflict his own odd self upon a town of Amish, where he performs a simple but unforgettable balloon gag and meets a traveling joke salesman and a friendly farmer with a preposterous number of daughters who all inexplicably desire Pee-wee. There is also a pretty female librarian who, like Dotty the bike mechanic in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” has a crush on him, but he just wants friendship and the latest book in his favorite adventure series.
While the surface is simple and goofy, Pee-wee Herman functions on a more complex cultural level where he has insistently created a character who is Peter Pan through the lens of John Waters. Like Peter Pan, females want something from him that he doesn’t even understand, or pretends not to. Like in John Waters’ world, funky, throwback outcasts are the heroes in small towns stuck in the 1950s. Pee-wee is a counterculture figure with mainstream appeal, and that is powerful, especially as gender norms and sexual identities have become a big part of the cultural conversation of late.
Certainly, there is no stated “message” to this movie. It’s just fun, whimsical, silly and delightful. There’s also a warmth in this film that isn’t in his other work. It’s merely the existence of Pee-wee Herman in his own weird, wonderful world, which says something just by being experienced. He’s not like anyone else, and in his latest adventure, he is very much himself.
“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is currently streaming on Netflix.