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‘Big Top Pee-wee’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 22, 1988


Randal Kleiser
Pee-Wee Herman;
Kris Kristofferson;
Susan Tyrrell;
Valeria Golino
Parental guidance suggested

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"Big Top Pee-wee," the new film starring Pee-wee Herman, has an almost surrealistic oddness; it's spectacularly, heroically peculiar.

Which isn't to say that it's any good. At most, the movie is a curiosity; what it provides is a fuller elaboration of the Pee-wee esthetic, and as such it is of some interest. But it's strictly for Pee-wee completists.

In spots the film is fascinating, though perhaps not in ways the filmmakers intended. All things considered, though, it's hard to know just what was intended. The movie, which was directed by Randal Kleiser ("Grease" and "The Blue Lagoon"), casts Pee-wee as a small-town farmer, and not since "Green Acres" has American rural life seemed so inexplicably demented.

It opens just as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" did -- with a dream sequence -- but this time the Bow-Tied One pictures himself onstage, as a Sinatra-style crooner, singing to a gang of swooning teen-age girls. Trying to sneak out past his adoring fans at the stage door, the star disguises himself as Abraham Lincoln, but while he pauses to satisfy a fan's request ("Could I have your autograph, Mister Lincoln?"), his beard slips off, he's recognized, and, cornered by his admirers in an alley, he raises his arms, like Superman, and lifts off into the heavens.

This sequence is probably the movie's high point, but by the time Pee-wee awakens, rouses his friend Vance the Pig (who talks and sleeps in the bed with him) and readies himself to meet the day, the film seems poky and anemic. And when, during a violent storm, a traveling circus troupe managed by Kris Kristofferson is stranded on Pee-wee's doorstep, we feel stranded, too, without hope of rescue.

There is the tiniest glimmer of pleasure in seeing Pee-wee, wearing a straw hat and singing "Pee-wee Herman Had a Farm" ("Eee-Eye, Eee-Eye, Oh"), hop on a tractor, or in seeing him get shot out of a cannon (sort of), fall in love and lose his virginity. And there's the moment where Pee-wee extracts chocolate milk from a brown cow ("UMMH, CHOCOLATY!!). But the filmmakers have banked too much on the incongruity of placing this walking conceptual art piece against a natural backdrop.

What we respond to in "Big Top Pee-wee" isn't so much the strangeness of the material as the filmmakers' ineptitude. Kleiser has no feel for comedy, and there's no affinity between him and his star. He shoots the material as if he didn't quite get it, and the gags dribble out weakly, without any emphasis or piquancy, as if the camera itself were perplexed by the scene unfolding in front of it.

A certain amount of befuddlement is to be expected; it is, as the behaviorists are fond of saying, an appropriate response to the stimuli. How, after all, are we to react when Pee-wee chews up a worm and spits it out into the mouths of baby birds; or when Kristofferson introduces Pee-wee to his brassy, three-inch-tall wife Midge (Susan Tyrrell), whom he carries around in his shirt pocket; or to Pee-wee's first screen kiss (which at its minute-and-a-half length can't be substantially less fidgety-making than in its original, record-breaking length)?

In "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," director Tim Burton ("Beetlejuice") put a maniacal spin on Pee-wee's kitsch universe; he's a master of artificial realities, and his design for the film made it seem as if the whole world was a projection of the Pee-wee id.

Kleiser can't convincingly construct any reality, artificial or otherwise. By having Pee-wee fall in love and interact with the world in a seminormal way, "Big Top Pee-wee" brings to the surface the creepy-crawly feelings that sometimes come over us while we watch his Saturday morning television show. It's like reading Dr. Seuss after you've learned that the Cat in the Hat was a multiple sex offender. In one scene, Pee-wee is so desperate to find a place for himself in the circus that he puts himself on display as a freak, next to the dog boy and the bearded lady. And that's what he seems to be doing in the film -- turning himself into a sideshow freak.

Pee-wee's presence fetishizes the ordinary; everything he touches is endowed with a patina of weirdness, even his costars. Kris Kristofferson has never been a kitsch object, but playing opposite Pee-wee he suddenly ascends to a place in the pantheon of show-biz awfulness alongside performers like Merv Griffin or Wayne Newton. On the other hand, as Gina, the trapeze artist with whom Pee-wee falls in love, the dark-eyed, newcomer Valeria Golino has a sweet-natured presence and manages to seem completely unruffled by her love scenes with Pee-wee. Under the circumstances, her naturalness and ease strike just the right note.

The script that Pee-wee (in his real-life, producing/screenwriting alter ego Paul Reubens) and his partner George McGrath have provided isn't sturdy or dependable, which makes the need for competent collaborators all the more apparent.

Pee-wee's closest kin are the silent comics, and Reubens may envision himself as a artist in the Chaplin/Keaton mold. Kleiser doesn't have a strong personality as a director, and he may in fact have been chosen for that reason. But what "Big Top Pee-wee" proves is that Reubens (and Pee-wee) need their collaborators to help create a suitable context, a world for him to live in. That way Pee-wee can be Pee-wee -- a meta-kitsch icon for the ages.

Big Top Pee-wee, at area theaters, is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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