Somewhere, 12 year-old me is really pissed at 29 year-old me right now. While I’d been a fan of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and the live show that HBO shows from time to time, somehow I’ve never seen “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and now that I have, I’m kicking myself over it.
I don’t know if you do it alot, but watching a movie at home by yourself is a little odd. In a big theater, you’re surrounded by other people so when something’s funny lots of people in the room are laughing. Other people laughing makes it seem more ok to laugh, somehow. At home alone, sometimes I feel like a complete idiot laughing by myself while watching a movie. Even though there’s no one in the room, I get strangely self-aware and it seems to take more to make me laugh than it usually would. This was not the case with “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” It made me laugh…alot. And that right there is really all I’d need to say about the movie to let you know what I thought if I had any care about the rambling length of my posts. Luckily, I don’t.
A Brief Synopsis of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”: Pee-Wee’s bike gets stolen. Shit goes absolutely sideways. Seriously, that’s the entire plot of this movie. It’s a classic “road” picture with Pee-wee’s bike serving as the MacGuffin. Here’s the interesting thing though: basically it’s a movie of sight-gags. Think about it…there’s really not a lot of dialogue in the movie at all. It’s a lot of Pee-wee exploring people and places on his own and then having short conversations with them along the way. It’s unapologetically batshit crazy and never makes any attempt to explain much of the how’s and why’s. (How does Pee-wee get from a hospital room in Texas to the Warner Brothers studio lot in California? Don’t care. Why are there ducks and a monkey in a pet store? Don’t care. Why does no one seem to question the fact that Pee-wee owns a home that’s looks like it’s been decorated by a group of deranged 9 year olds? Don’t care.) It’s basically funny sketch after funny sketch with the general search for his bike as the only link between them. And that’s why I loved it. It’s a movie that manages to create an entire bizarre world without using exposition. That’s just impressive writing, directing and acting on the part of everyone involved. (Why is there a permanent shrine to a dead trucker in a truck stop diner? Don’t care. Why does Simone’s boyfriend Andy never actually speak any words? Don’t care. How does Dottie have the expertise to construct a bike that has jets, smoke machines and an ejector seat? Don’t care. Why are there two real elephants painted blue and pink around a random corner on the WB lot? Don’t care.) It’s a movie that just wanted to be funny. There’s no lesson learned and no great change in character either. By the end of the movie Pee-wee’s still not in love with Dottie and Francis is still not nice to Pee-wee. Everything is basically reset back to the start…except now Pee-wee’s been portrayed by James Brolin in a movie about the movie we just watched. You know…as you’ll do.
Why is it a PCBS? Because I had no in the movie are iconic moments in cinema that I’ve seen referenced in other places. Seriously. I mean, I knew that the Tequila dance was there…but I didn’t realize how much of the rest of the movie is floating around in my head from other places in the zeitgeist. For example, when Pee-wee pulled up to the pet store that was on fire (Why is the pet store on fire during the middle of the day with no one around it? Don’t care.) I already knew that he was going to run out at the end of the sequence holding the snakes and faint. But I didn’t realize how funny the build up to that moment was. Every time he went back into the fire to rescue more animals and stopped to make a face at the snakes, I laughed. Literally every time. You knew he wouldn’t let them burn, but he was determined to leave them until the very end and it just plays out like comedy gold. I also already had in my head the image of Francis in the bathtub from flipping past the movie some day on cable years ago. But I didn’t know just how funny it is to see Pee-wee go all Nurse Wratchet on Francis (“Go ahead and scream. We’re miles from where anyone can hear you!”) And the look on Pee-wee’s face when he jumped straight into the tub in his suit (which never comes off…ever) was hilarious. Ruebens is just so committed to that character, so confident in everything that is Pee-wee, that the slightest things seem brilliant (hissing at people as he’s walking in the rain, giggling to himself as Mickey has him steer the car while he lights a cigarette, being pleased with himself because he thinks his “rebel” speech has in any way deterred Dottie). It’s the fully realized Pee-wee character and slightly off kilter world that just make the movie such a classic.
How does it look in the rear view mirror? Well if my glowing words above don’t fully convey the message I’ll say it again: I loved this movie in 2010. It’s 25 years old this year and it feels like something that could easily have just come out. People still really love this movie too and that’s always a good sign that something’s stood the test of time (but not always…because some people still love “Titanic” and those people are wrong…stupid and wrong). I also feel like this movie is a bit of lightning in a bottle. When I told a friend that I’d also never seen “Big Top Pee-wee” she quickly informed me that apparently “no one has.” I can imagine that they tried to make another movie with this kind of super loose plot used as a framework to support a series of sketch-like ideas and that it just wasn’t as good. Making a movie like this is extremely difficult as you’re always one or two bad ideas away from making something that resembles the last half hour of any given “Saturday Night Live.” Also, and completely unrelated, how meta is the kid from “The Wonder Years” in this movie? In another example of a movie within the movie, he’s a kid actor who’s a terror on set but not in the normal “oh this child star is annoying to work with” way. He’s obviously hip to the business, puts down his co-star for constantly missing her queues and keeps referring to the director by his first name in a way that just screams “over-indulged douche bag actor.” It’s maybe 5 minutes of the movie, but it’s absolutely pitch perfect and hilariously inside the industry humor.
Final Thoughts: Has this changed the way that I think about Pee-wee Herman? Hell yes. I also wasn’t surprised to see that Phil Hartman was one of the writers on this movie. He was a funny guy…that you may remember from such things as “News Radio”, “Saturday Night Live” and “The Greatest Story Ever Hula’ed.” ”Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” is a movie that knows exactly what it wants to be and executes on it perfectly. It pulls off a hilarious series of endlessly watchable and quotable scenes (“Tell ‘em Large Marge sent ya”, “You don’t want to get mixed up with the likes of me”, and “I’m in Texas. Here I’ll prove it” to name a few). It’s a great movie and the first to get my “WWCD” (Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner) tag for something that I’ve crossed off the list that I can’t believe I missed out on the first time around. I’d like to formally apologize to Past John for not seeing it before now. Sorry man, my bad.