"Pee-wee's Big Adventure" is a movie built around the talents of alleged humorist Pee-wee Herman, literally a 98-pound weakling (he weighs himself) and a slender reed indeed, who minces through its 90 minutes like a cross between "Our Gang's" Alfalfa and Carol Channing.
His Big Adventure consists of a cross-country trek to recover his stolen bicycle. Hitchhiking, he is picked up by an escaped convict, and helps him elude the police by dressing in drag. At a truck stop, he enrages a huge lumberjack of a man, who thinks he's bird-dogging his girl. He blunders into a bikers' bar, but charms the habitue's by performing a toe dance to the beat of "Tequila." Finally, he finds the vehicle at Warner Bros., allowing the studio to shamelessly promote itself while shaving at least $3 million from the production budget. Now that's movie-making!
The story is crudely organized as a series of set pieces, predicated on gags of jaw-breaking staleness. A bully charges to break down a door, someone opens the door, the bully falls on his face. The escaped convict was sent up the river because he removed the "Don't Remove Under Penalty of Law" sticker from a mattress. Pee-wee gives a waitress advice, the waitress says, "But . . ." Pee-wee punnily ripostes, "Everyone I know has a big 'but.' "
Whether the gags succeed or fail depends on how much you like Pee-wee, a knock-kneed, weasel-faced dandy with the laugh of a trick seal and a voice as pleasant as an alarm clock. The essence of Herman's shtick is what a grating, immature jerk he is -- it's a numskull's version of the kind of irritate-the-audience performance art pioneered by the late Andy Kaufman. He's the kid who won't grow up, responding to insults with "I know you are, but what am I?," annoying his adversaries by repeating every word they say. And when they summon up their annoyance and blurt, "Peeeeee-weeee," he flattens them with "That's my name -- don't wear it out."
"Pee-wee's Big Adventure" isn't a movie but a collection of found objects from the garbage heap of low culture: bunny slippers, Mister Potato Head, oversized toothbrush, X-Ray Spex, trick chewing gum, big rubber thumb (for hitchhiking), Godzilla movies, the tour at the Alamo, elementary school sing-alongs, junk food, platform shoes. How dumb these things are, how dumb the gags are, how dumb Pee-wee is -- that's the point; the movie makes fun of itself, but it does so joylessly. "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" is just another exercise in slumming for the yuppie set, soured by contempt.