When Netflix first started making its own television shows it may have seemed like a lark, but the company has nearly single-handedly changed the way we watch television. People started binge-watching with DVDs, sure, but releasing an entire season of an original show at one time fundamentally altered the way we consume and talk about the medium, and even how it’s made (it’s hard to imagine the slow burn of Bloodline lasting long even on a cable network).
Now that the company has been getting into original movies, it’s fair to wonder if they’ll have a similar impact. With Netflix unable to get its films into major theater chains, many of its feature-length releases are skipping theaters altogether, resulting in films that are essentially optimized for home viewing. The upcoming Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a great example of what that may end up looking like. It’s not a film that you’d necessarily want to shell out $10 for, but if you’re looking to put something on so you can Pee-wee and chill, it’s the perfect fit.
Warning: minor spoilers ahead.
Paul Reubens returns as Pee-wee Herman, the suspended-in-time man-child he’s been portraying since the ‘80s, and while there’s a bit more make-up involved and the suit’s a tad looser this time around, it’s otherwise impressive how effortlessly the 64-year-old actor slips back into the role. There’s no real continuity between the multiple Pee-wee TV shows and movies, of course, so Holiday opens on an average, ordinary day for the character in his idyllic suburban town of Fairville. Although for Pee-wee, starting that ordinary day involves a complicated Rube Goldberg set-up to get him up, get him dressed, and on his way to his job at the local diner.
If you’ve seen Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure you know the routine, and director John Lee (Broad City) successfully recreates the kind of Technicolor landscape the character’s known for. But soon Pee-wee’s world is knocked off-axis by the arrival of Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike), playing a hunky, beefcake biker named… Joe Manganiello. The two improbably bond — Manganiello is particularly impressed by a detailed scale model Pee-wee has made of his home town — and the actor gives Pee-wee an invitation to his upcoming birthday party in New York. All that Pee-wee needs to do is leave the confines of the ‘50s-esque suburb he’s always known, and hit the road.
It’s simultaneously bizarre and absolutely wonderful that Manganiello agreed to take on this role in the first place, and the moment I realized what was happening I felt the immediate need to high-five his agent, his manager, and anybody else that told him this was a good idea. He is clearly having a blast subverting his own persona — the warped mirror Manganiello is the kind of guy that would childishly pout in his bedroom during his own party, stuffing his face with chips while wearing a tuxedo — and there’s a not-so-subtle sexual tension between the two that feels pulled from the earliest days of the Pee-wee character. But this is a movie more about friendship and acceptance than anything else, and Pee-wee seeing so much of himself in someone like Manganiello is a ridiculously silly motor that gets the story moving quickly.
Once Pee-wee starts his road trip to New York, however, things become decidedly less even. It’s essentially a collection of skits as Pee-wee runs into various people on his travels, including an uptight Amish community, a farmer and his troupe of daughters that desperately want to marry Pee-wee, and a trio of female fugitives (Alia Shawkat, Jessica Pohly, and Stephanie Beatriz) that seem pulled straight from a Russ Meyer flick.
It provides plenty of opportunity for Reubens to mug it up with his usual Pee-wee laugh and chortle, and he and co-writer Paul Rust (Comedy Bang-Bang, Arrested Development) nail some truly great moments; Pee-wee impressing the Amish community with his ballooning skills is a particular high point. But when the jokes don’t land — and the movie does turn down some blind alleys — the result can be dull, the kind of stretches that had me squirming in my theater seat.
What might drag in a theater can work perfectly on Netflix
But that’s the real trick here: while Pee-wee screened in a theater for press, most people won’t ever be watching it in that setting. They’ll simply turn it on at home one night, no doubt tempted throughout the evening to check their phone, get something from the kitchen, or shoot off a couple of quick emails. And in that context, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday seems like a perfect fit for the Netflix viewing experience. You need to step away for a second? Not a problem; the episodic nature of the plot ensures you won’t miss much. Feel the need to check Twitter? No biggie; the movie will have moved on to another joke soon enough.
I’m not sure if this was an intentional strategy, but if streaming television taught us that audiences are happy to stay couch-locked for hours when it comes to long-form narrative, then perhaps the lesson of something like Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is that self-contained movie experiences can get away with being a little more loose. They can offer up drive-by viewing that doesn’t penalize you for watching in the background, even if that same movie would drag when seen in a theater where nothing exists but the movie itself. I’m interested in seeing how Netflix’s original movies evolve in the coming years, but no matter what issues I had with this particular film I found myself thinking the same thing I did when Arrested Development got another season: thank goodness services like Netflix and Amazon are around to pull these properties out of the Hollywood dustbin. It’s wonderful to see Pee-wee Herman back in action again, because weirdness of that degree never gets old.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday debuts worldwide on Netflix on March 18th.