Picks and Pans Review: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

UPDATED 08/12/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/12/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

With his red bow tie, white shoes and childishly self-satisfied smile, Pee-Wee Herman poses as the essence of '50s nerdiness. But as his stand-up comedy routines and talk show appearances suggest, Pee-Wee isn't so much a character of the '50s as a comment on that era. That is one problem with Herman's first movie: You can't sustain a comment through a full-length film. Making his feature debut, director Tim Burton has attempted to fashion a cinematic equivalent of Herman's sensibility—a movie filled with kitschy sets, vibrant-colored costumes and overdone music. When a bully steals his bike, Pee-Wee goes on a cross-country search to retrieve it. But unlike the heroes of most picaresques, Pee-Wee is no smarter at the end than he is at the start. In effect that means he is just another one of the movie's silly props. Herman is trying to turn attitudinizing into comic performance art. But in this case he hasn't developed his stand-up posture into a fleshed-out character. Herman's idiosyncrasies sabotage the comedy; when Pee-Wee lets loose his little-boy laugh because he's enchanted with his surroundings, he cheats the audience out of its own laughter. And as the film lurches from situation to situation, it looks increasingly calculated to evoke comparisons to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, who reign over a pantheon Pee-Wee hasn't yet approached. There's something misguided about a Pee-Wee Herman comedy that gets its best laugh not out of Pee-Wee or the 1950s but Lone Star locals singing Deep in the Heart of Texas. (PG)

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