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‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’ review: It’s a groaner, Dottie

Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman in "Pee-wee's Big Holiday." | Netflix

When Paul Reubens took the stage in character as Pee-wee Herman for an HBO special in 1981, I almost fell off the sofa laughing. It was one of the silliest, most insanely creative, weirdest and flat-out funniest acts I’d seen in a long time.

Pee-wee/Paul have had quite the journey since then, with highlights including Tim Burton’s brilliant “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985, the award-winning children’s series “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” from 1986-1991 — and the lowlights being the arrest of Reubens on indecency charges, and the disappearance of the Pee-Wee character for a very long time.

With time Reubens the actor made a comeback and the character of Pee-wee surfaced in small moments, e.g., “Funny or Die” skits and Pee-wee voicing movie trailers on Jimmy Fallon’s show. A Broadway revival of the stage show was taped for HBO.

Now, a half-dozen years after reports first surfaced of a full-length feature film about Pee-wee to be produced by Judd Apatow, we get the Netflix-released movie, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”

Pee-wee, we hardly knew ye.

In this version of the Pee-wee Herman universe, Pee-wee is still that weird (and yes, sometimes creepy) hybrid of man and boy. He lives on his own and he has a full-time job (as a cook in a diner), but he wears the tight gray suit and the white shoes and the red bow tie, giving him the appearance of a ventriloquist’s dummy come to life, and he still regards the universe with childlike wonder, and everyone in Pee-wee’s idyllic town of Fairville refers to Pee-wee as a boy.

“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is set in a world where at times it appears as if it’s the 1950s, and other times we seem to be in present day. Also, the time frame must be prior to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” because Pee-wee did quite a bit of traveling in that film, but in “Big Holiday” we’re told he’s never set foot outside of Fairville.

You just gotta go with it.

The ruggedly handsome actor Joe Manganiello plays, well, the ruggedly handsome actor Joe Manganiello, and it’s a gamer of a performance. This version of Joe is a vain and ridiculous but also sweet-natured lunk who arrives in Fairville on a motorcycle for no discernible reason, orders a milkshake from Pee-wee — and strikes up an instant, intense, magnetic friendship with Pee-wee that takes “bromance” to the verge of “romance.” I mean, these two REALLY like each other.

Joe tells Pee-wee it’s time for Pee-wee to live a little. In five days, Joe’s hosting his own birthday party at his New York City penthouse, and he wants Pee-wee to be there as his guest of honor. And with that, Joe rides into the sunset. Well, East.

Off we go. The hopelessly naïve Pee-wee hits the road, along the way encountering a trio of female bank robbers straight out of a Russ Meyer movie; a disturbingly cheerful traveling salesman who sells old-timey gag items; a shotgun-toting farmer with nine zaftig daughters, all of whom instantly want to marry Pee-wee; a woman who looks and talks as if she’s Katharine Hepburn playing Amelia Earhart, and the operators of a snake farm, among others.

Most of the actors playing these supporting roles wear garish makeup, sport terrible wardrobe choices and belt out their lines as if imitating bad actors. Perhaps the intention of Reubens and his co-writer Paul Rust, and the director John Lee, was to create a bizarro, freakish road movie, in which Pee-wee is actually the most normal person. At times Pee-wee’s ingenious methods of dealing with one trippy encounter after another are pretty funny; just as often, sequences die on the vine.

While Pee-wee fantasizes about arriving in New York and having an amazing time with Joe Manganiello — just the two of them, laughing and partying and dancing in slow motion — Joe pouts in his bedroom, ignoring a houseful of party guests because the only guest he cared about was Pee-wee, and it appears Pee-wee might never make it to New York. OK.

Reubens is 62, but through a combination of makeup, lighting and digital retouching, Pee-wee looks pretty much the same as he did some 35 years ago. The voice, the signature laugh, the mugging, the repetition of juvenile put-down phrases — all right there, all as solid as ever.

Pee-wee is still a startling and original and strangely endearing creation. He just deserved a funnier, more intriguing holiday.

★★

Netflix presents a film directed by John Lee and written by Paul Reubens and Paul Rust. Running time: 89 minutes. No MPAA rating. On Netflix beginning Friday.