Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.
Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) is a happy-go-lucky (and slightly effete) man-child who’s got the world on a string. He lives contentedly with his dog, Speck, and his cherished custom Schwinn bicycle. When his bike is stolen, Pee-wee must take to the road on a heroic journey across America to get it back.
Why We Love It
Honestly, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure isn’t an ideal fit for Movies We Love. But until they add a feature called Movies We Obssess Over To The Point Where Our Friends And Family Start To Worry For Our Sanity, this’ll suit me.
After 25 years, it remains — in my humble opinion — the finest comedy feature Hollywood has ever committed to celluloid. Is that an extreme statement? Maybe, but I’m not backing down from it.
Granted, I am biased. By a conservative estimate, I probably watched this movie 100 times by the time I was 18 — at which point, I stopped counting. You can’t subject yourself to that kind of exposure without serious after effects, and I suspect that PWBA actually rewired the neural pathways that trigger my laugh reflex. To this day, ordinary comedies don’t do much for me. Most of the time, they’re not weird enough.
Consider The Hangover. It made roughly $280 million in domestic box office, so it must be pretty funny, right? No. Did any of the lead characters ever impulsively stop to wrap his face in Scotch tape, before violently ripping the tape away with masochistic zeal? No. Ergo, it’s really not that funny.
But Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is more than just a collage of non sequiturs. Its heart and soul lies with the iconic performance of its star, Paul Reubens. Reubens sinks into his caricaturish Pee-wee persona so completely, the real man becomes invisible. That’s the difference between a chameleon, like Reubens, and lesser actors, who seem to strain when they’re not playing close variations of themselves.
Ruebens is a frenetic whirlwind of hyper-amplified, unguarded, child-like emotion. Reubens loudly telegraphs Pee-wee’s state of mind in nearly every scene, in a spectacle of physical comedy that rivals Buster Keaton.
Of course, Pee-wee’s more than just a one-LOUD-note character. There’s just a trace of guile about him, which he strategically employs when he’s trying to con his way out of a jam. But, the mask of deceit never stays on long before its starts to slip. Consider the scene from which the epigram at the beginning of this column is taken. Pee-wee is rejecting the advances of Dotty (Elizabeth Daily), the bike shop girl. Pee-wee acts all distant and cool — like a lone rider who just can’t afford to let anyone near the electrified fence encircling his heart. However, Pee-wee can hardly make it out the door before his look of grim determination gives way to a goofy grin and a trademark chuckle.
Moment We Fell In Love
As with most road movies, PWBA has an episodic plot that pits our hero against a disparate array of challengers, and introduces him to an eclectic bunch of allies. With so many classic scenes, it’s hard to pick a favorite. But, I can tell you which scene hooked me first.
Pee-wee walks into a desert roadhouse to use a pay phone. Little does he know he’s walked into the headquarters of the rowdy Satan’s Helpers Motorcycle Club. He arouses their anger by loudly shushing them and barking “I’m trying to use the phone!” Then, he signs his own motherfucking death warrant by knocking all of their bikes over.
The Satan’s Helpers are on the verge of lynching him when he makes “a last request.” He borrows the bartender’s pair of white platform shoes, queues up The Champs’ “Tequila” on the jukebox and hops onto the bar to perform the weirdest … dance … ever.
We’re not talking a Napoleon Dynamite-style funky white-boy workout, here. We’re talking the sort of freaky Reagan-era homoerotic spectacle the National Endowment for the Arts used to sponsor.
Flying in the face of all logic, the Tequila dance wins the gang over. They give Pee-wee his own black leather vest and chopper, and a triumphant send-off. Pee-wee, naturally, rides the chopper maybe 100 feet before crashing straight into a billboard. Classic.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure clocks in at a breezy 90 minutes, but is densely packed with comedic gems. I’ve barely delved into the film’s treasures here. If you haven’t seen it, or just haven’t seen it in a while, check it out. Like right now. Go.
Still here? OK, fine. Consider this. As Tim Burton’s first feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure uncannily predicts many of his future thematic and stylistic obsessions. If you want to get all scholarly about it, you can approach the film as a sort of Rosetta Stone for unlocking the rest of Burton’s oeuvre. The seeds for everything from “Batman” and “Ed Wood” to “Sleepy Hollow” and … yes … “Sweeney Todd” are all right there.
Trust me, they are. If you don’t catch them all the first go-round, don’t worry. You will by the 100th viewing.