By Dale Peck
Where in the hell do you start with a movie like Pee-wee's Big Adventure? With Tim Burton in his feature debut, displaying a B-movie zeal so old-school it looks brand new? Or Danny Elfman in his star turn, delighting listeners with an irresistible fusion of Carl Stalling and carnival jingles and video game bleeps and whoops? And let's not forget cowriter Phil Hartman, muse of the Groundlings and SNL before he became a great deadpan actor in his own right -- one of the few men who can play both halves of a double entendre for a laugh. Or Elizabeth Daily as Dottie or Diane Salinger as Simone or -- Oh! My! God! -- Jan Hooks as the saccharine Alamo tour guide, whose two minutes of screen time are pants-wettingly hilarious. But even with all this talent and energy and, let's face it, good luck going for it (I mean, Burton and Elfman and Hartman, all on a $6 million budget), Pee-wee's Big Adventure is still pretty much all about -- um, duh -- Pee-wee Herman, a.k.a. Paul Reubens, who, like his friend Cassandra Peterson* (blink and you'll miss her boobs in the biker scene), wound up more or less subsumed by his most famous creation.
Twenty years after he first taunted Francis Buxton with that most existential of comebacks, 'I know you are, but what am I?' the movie seems as fresh as ever -- more human than Airplane, less kitschy than Ghostbusters, a whole lot better than Porky's. Like those movies, Big Adventure is essentially a series of sketches and improvs (Pee-wee in the toy shop, Pee-wee at the rodeo, Pee-wee on the soundstage) held together by the thinnest of plots: Boy goes in search of -- what else? -- his beloved stolen bicycle. But unlike the latest incarnation of the form, the Scary/Epic/Date Movie franchise, Big Adventure reaches deeper than last week's box office for its subject, lovingly resurrecting a fantasy of '50s Americana and allowing its own absurdity to provide the humor. Call it na'vet', call it innocence, but in this era of Girls Gone Wild and DudesNude.com and rainbow parties (oral sex orgies) and the hundred thousand other outlets for the sexual energy we once sublimated into healthy capitalist activities like art-making and housekeeping, Big Adventure has a charm sadly missing from most contemporary comedies, where the only commodity is sex, the only meaning paranoia. At a recent midnight showing, during which half the audience responded on cue to 'The Yellow Rose of Texas' and 'Tequila!' I found myself squinting at the screen, waiting expectantly for Reubens to pull off the mask, to snarl 'Suck my cock!' or, better yet, whip it out of his pants and smack it in someone's face. Want a foot-long, Mickey? Pee-wee's got one just for you!
But isn't that how we always watched him? Looking back, it almost seems like a chicken-and-egg scenario. Which came first: the thin, lipsticked pout sneering, 'There's a lot of things about me that you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand,' or the long-haired goateed 'loner' dropping into the South Trail adult theater for a little afternoon relief during a visit to his parents in Sarasota, Fla.? Reubens has copped to the fact that the precursor to Big Adventure, a late-night act called The Pee-wee Herman Show, was more risqu' than its prime-time or daytime incarnations, but he also points out that by today's standards, even for children's entertainment, it doesn't seem risqu' at all. This reasoning is prescient of Reubens's defense when he was arrested a second time, in 2001, this time for the more serious charge of possessing child pornography, which turned out to be vintage 20th-century physique magazines and photographs, some of which depicted minors. 'It seems so innocent to me,' Reubens told Dateline NBC in 2004. 'You would immediately look at that collection and be able to tell very, very, very quickly this is not a collection of child pornography.' The Los Angeles D.A.'s office apparently agreed with him, dropping the charges, although Reubens felt compelled to plead guilty to the misdemeanor offence of possessing obscene images of minors rather than risk going to trial. 'We're living in a very scary time,' Reubens told Dateline. 'Do we let the legal system decide in a courtroom what's obscene and what's not obscene? I didn't want to be in a situation where there was a possibility I could go to jail for something that's that material.'