Early in the movie “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” a neighbor suggests to Pee-wee Herman that he ought to take a trip — walk his white, tasseled loafers right out of the tiny, cloistered town of Fairville and see the world.
“Nope!” Pee-wee responds, with manic glee. “You know I don’t ever want to go anywhere, or try anything new!”
The line encapsulates the very best — and worst — of comic Paul Reubens’ latest outing with his signature character, the first new Pee-wee Herman feature film in 28 years, which arrives in theaters and on Netflix Friday.
Fans will be relieved to know that the gray-suited perma-boy has not matured; that he still loves milkshakes, sweet rides and the flatulent sound of a slowly deflating balloon. But unfortunately the fictional world around Pee-wee hasn’t evolved either, and a conceit that seemed subversively weird in the 1980s when Reubens was at the height of his popularity has lost much of its oomph.
Despite a few delights — chiefly an adorably self-aware Joe Manganiello as the object of Pee-wee’s man-crush — the new movie has an unsure tone and the barest thread of a story.
In his travels over the years, Pee-wee has found comedy gold in connecting with amusing eccentrics, from Jambi the blue-faced genie on his TV show to the tough bikers who cheered his “Tequila” dance in the 1985 Tim Burton-directed gem, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
The eccentrics are back here, the amusement less so. Whether it’s a voluptuous girl gang who climb into his car after a bank robbery, a group of gender-bending black hairstylists in a Winnebago or some helpful Amish guys with a wagon, none of the supporting players is in any way motivated or intrinsic to the plot. They exist only to convey Pee-wee across the country via a series of colorful characters and vehicles.
In some sequences, it’s not entirely clear who is meant to be the butt of the joke, as when a farmer with a house full of chubby daughters tries to marry one off to Pee-wee. The moment feels strangely mean-spirited, as if the joke is on unappealing fat women instead of Pee-wee’s “Ew! Girls!” response.
Part of the problem may be that in 2016 Pee-wee is still boxing an opponent who long ago called it quits: a stiff, suppressive culture. In his groundbreaking stage show that played on HBO starting in 1981, his joyous Saturday morning children’s program on CBS and his two previous feature films starring the character, Reubens’ best trick was his ability to simultaneously mock and delight in the creepy cheer of 1950s children’s TV performers, and in so doing send up a brand of conservatism that was dominant at the time. When Reagan was president, Wall Street was booming and flag-waving patriotism ruled, the simmering anger under Pee-wee’s giggle played as hilarious rebellion.
Pee-wee is older now, but that’s not the problem — at 63, Reubens still fits into his gray suit, and, thanks to the miracle of digital de-aging, his rouged cheeks barely look a day over 45. His performance is as exuberant and demented as ever.
The problem is that in the era of the over-share, the basic-cable F-bomb and the Republican presidential front-runner whose stump speeches include a pitch for his own steak line, the weirdos, in many ways, have won.
It’s possible that this Pee-wee will work better for children than adults. The deflating balloon gag is a keeper, a spry soundtrack by Devo alumnus Mark Mothersbaugh moves the tempo along, and cool-guy Manganiello’s earnest appreciation of Pee-wee’s quirks supplies the film’s sweetest and funniest moments.
As Manganiello sulks in his room, shoveling down potato chips and waiting for Pee-wee to arrive on his birthday, it’s clear he’s a real-deal fan.
‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’
MPAA rating: No rating
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; also on Netflix