‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’: Setting the bar for total weirdness

It’s strange how your perspective can shift as you get older. I have vivid memories of Pee-wee Herman from my childhood; I was always watching reruns of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and remember watching “Big Top Pee-wee” more times than my parents should have allowed. You remember that film; it’s the one where Pee-wee lives on a farm and talks to the animals and then a giant storm blows a circus into his backyard and he has to help them put on a show. As stupid as it seems now, I loved it when I was a kid.

Strange, but Pee-wee’s appearance and behavior — the tight, gray flannel suit, the chunky white loafers, the bowtie, the random stretches of high-pitched cackling laughter, his tendency to talk to furniture and to his food — never seemed that off-center to me when I was young. I saw Pee-wee as just another clown, someone there to amuse me. He’s an easy character to love, skipping through life with gleeful energy and child-like exuberance. Everything seems new to him, like each day is another voyage of discovery. After spending a couple of hours with him, you wish you could be that carefree.

Oh, how age hardens us, though. Watching Pee-wee today, I just want to get him professional help or take him to a place where he can make a couple of adult friends. The suit, the laugh, the constant childish amusement, all of them seem like clear signs of arrested development. Then again, that was always the idea with Pee-wee; he could appeal to kids because he refused to grow up and remained forever one of them. Still, all of his antics just seem too wacky for words, almost like an adult playing in a giant toy store — you watch him with a concerned expression, but, if you’re anything like me, are so amused that you can’t quite take your eyes off him.

Paul Reubens, who created the character in the ’80s, is resurrecting Pee-wee for a Broadway performance. Reubens, now 58, abandoned the character after an indecent exposure scandal ravaged his career in the early ’90s. Reubens has built a career since then, and his choice to bring Pee-wee back is an interesting one — with a cultural climate where any odd behavior is immediately earmarked as cause for alarm, it makes me wonder if the character will now make people squirm, that is, if he hasn’t already. 

After learning about Reubens’ Broadway comeback, I realized I had never seen the first Pee-Wee movie, Tim Burton’s 1985 cult comedy “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” I have often heard it called one of the weirdest films ever, and that’s an accurate assessment. But there is a kind of bravery to its strangeness; it is so bizarre, so off-the-charts when it comes to absolute oddness, that you kind of have to admire it.

Take the opening sequence. Pee-wee wakes up in his suburban house that is filled with toys, strange decorations, bizarre furniture and plenty of other things that will leave you with a puzzled expression. Pee-wee gets up and starts his day. He gets dressed, brushes his teeth and makes breakfast, cackling and grinning all the while. He will not eat his breakfast without first having a long, nonsensical conversation with it, after which he gobbles it down and skips out the front door.

There is nothing on display in this opening sequence except Pee-wee’s total weirdness, and Burton simply lets to you marinate in it. The movie seems to be saying “this is the kind of behavior you will be seeing for the next 90 minutes, and if you don’t like this sequence, you probably shouldn’t watch the rest.” Reubens’ performance doesn’t leave you howling with laughter, but the character is so unique that you can’t help but be intrigued. He goes for broke with Pee-wee, never afraid to be as ridiculous as possible. There are few things more interesting to me than an actor out on a limb, giving a performance that could implode at any moment. Reubens is ready to go down and take everyone with him with this character.

Pee-wee’s most beloved possession is his bike, which is stolen from him early in the film. After trying to find it himself, he goes to a psychic, who cons him into thinking his bike has been stashed in the basement of the Alamo. Pee-wee then sets off across the country to find it.

The film basically becomes a comic road movie in the mold of “The Jerk,” with Pee-wee encountering an array of odd characters and strange situations. Burton directs the movie with a deft hand. Still early in his career, he creates a tone for the film that is unmistakably strange yet oddly inviting; Pee-wee is like a boy traveling down the Mississippi, and Burton gives the film a fun air of discovery.

He is helped by the fact that, for all his strangeness, Pee-wee is quite endearing. Like Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk,” there is a sweetness to him that makes him fun to follow. No matter what situation Pee-wee finds himself in, you’re with him all the way. In creating the Pee-wee, Reubens crafted a real comic rarity: a character that might make you squirm but could still find his way into your heart.

Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237 or doneil@kentuckynewera.com.

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