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‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’ review: He’s back, but not in a big way

Paul Reubens is in a hairy situation in

Paul Reubens is in a hairy situation in "Pee-wee's Big Holiday." Credit: Netflix / Mark Fellman

PLOT Lured by an invitation to New York, Pee-wee Herman leaves the safety of his little hometown.

CAST Paul Reubens, Joe Manganiello, Alia Shawkat

LENGTH 1:30

RATED (Unrated) Slightly suggestive humor

BOTTOM LINE A disappointing rehash of Pee-wee’s 1985 film debut. Netflix subscribers may find it skim-worthy.

J.M. Barrie’s famously odd quote from “Peter Pan,” describing children as “gay and innocent and heartless,” perfectly describes Pee-wee Herman, the alter-ego of comedian Paul Reubens. A manic man-child in a too-small suit, Pee-wee was the weirdest celebrity of the 1980s, a slightly perverse persona who nevertheless hosted an Emmy-winning children’s television show for CBS. Reubens’ career collapsed in 1991, when he was arrested in a Florida porn theater — a reminder that Pee-wee was not a child after all.

Reubens’ slow public rehabilitation over the next 25 years — small film roles, occasional talk-show appearances — culminates in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” an original production by Netflix, where it begins streaming Friday. It’s a return to the Pee-wee of yore, a jumble of 1950s kitsch and random jokes about girl gangs, the Amish and actor Joe Manganiello (as himself). Still, this movie recalls another quote: You can’t go home again.

Written by Reubens and Paul Rust and directed by John Lee, “Pee-wee’s Big Hoilday” opens with our hero living a routine life in little Fairville, an Eisenhower-era town possibly in California. When Manganiello drops by on his motorcycle, he’s so charmed by Pee-wee that he hands him an invitation to “My Birthday Party at My Penthouse in New York.” Thus begins Pee-wee’s journey of discovery.

Except that we already discovered nearly everything here in 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” From the road-trip concept down to the smallest joke (Pee-wee once again escapes detection by wearing a cowboy costume), it’s a repeat of 30-year-old material. Alia Shawkat, as a bad girl with a soft heart, even looks a bit like Elizabeth Daily, Pee-wee’s not-quite-girlfriend in the first film.

Reubens is energetic and looks impressively ageless, but he seems to be playing a part rather than channeling his inner child. There is only one moment in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” when he recaptures his strange magic. It comes when Pee-wee entertains a crowd by blowing up a balloon and then, in real time, squeezing its nozzle to create irritating noises until the last dribble of air is gone. It’s a great routine — bizarre, daring and inexplicably funny. If only that balloon could stay full forever.

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