Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Paul Reubens in "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (1985)

Paull Reubens in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Paul Reubens, Phil Hartman, Michael Varhol
Film: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Original Screenplay category (1985):
-Witness *WINNER
-Back to the Future
-The Official Story
-The Purple Rose of Cairo

There are few fictional 80's cultural icons as familiar as Pee-Wee Herman. The man child has given Paul Reubens such an impressive career that extends beyond one medium. It started as a risque satire of variety shows with a ton of innuendos that mostly worked because Reubens played his character with such an earnest innocence. One could even find videos of him going onto The Late Show with David Letterman and entertaining the host with such a comical absurdity. It's a character that would seem to have a short shelf life, yet has remained iconic for nearing 40 years. It could just be that Reubens has failed to find a role as iconic and endearing, but it also is noteworthy that he still manages to find value in the character that rarely comes across as cheap pandering.

He's a character who has done stand-up, a Broadway show, an Emmy-winning children's show, and three movies. He could pop up anywhere from a children's birthday party to late night talk shows and be welcomed with equal enthusiasm. Yet if one wanted to understand the appeal of Pee-Wee Herman in a nutshell, the easy answer would be director Tim Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. While it may be difficult for those who recognize him from Pee-Wee's Playhouse to disassociate the settings, the film is full of exuberance and creativity that pops throughout the entire film, even giving Danny Elfman one of his first genuine masterpieces as a film composer. The opening score as Pee-Wee plays with his Rube Goldberg breakfast machine has an immediate manic and iconic feel to it. Those pounding notes feel like a blend between 50's idealism with the macabre sensibility that Burton would later perfect.

Most of all, it is a film about adventure. While vaguely inspired by The Bicycle Thief, the film is a look into juxtaposing a familiar fictional character into a wholly original story. It is a road trip that has plenty of absurd humor mixed in with madcap chases, inspired tangents, and the sense that Reubens the actor doesn't exist. Pee-Wee Herman is such a fleshed out character that it becomes a shame that the subsequent films fail to capture the complete magic of the original. Of course, films like Big Top Pee-Wee and Pee-Wee's Big Holiday only clarify what it is about the 1985 film that works so well. It isn't just about character. It is about its creative control over an already peculiar project that could go oh so horribly wrong.

This is why I'm proposing something a little unexpected. Yes, Reubens probably deserved something for making such a cartoonish character so endearing. However, the people who created the universe through the script deserve even more credit. It takes a lot to make a story essentially about losing your bicycle into riveting cinema, let along something that has withstood the test of time. With its meta humor, traces of Burton's macabre imagery, and the childlike sensibility of Pee-Wee, it's one of those original films that lures you in because of curiosity, leaving you there to wonder where things will wind up going. It may be an acquired taste, but it definitely defines the Pee-Wee phenomenon better than any episode of his TV series. It is something so accessible that it wouldn't be too surprising if this is the one thing that Reubens did that you liked.

Another reason that the script deserves more credit is because of the assurance that came in the team of Reubens and Phil Hartman. The two had worked together on stage and it's clear that by the time of this film that they had a pattern down. For a film full of seemingly random moments, they have such a fluid motion with its ability to transition between madcap, scary, and downright silly. Think about it. This is a movie that has a chase scene around a dinosaur park, the introduction of Large Marge, The Alamo, the biker bar, and a chase around a studio lot. These moments by themselves are entertaining. Together, there has to be something concrete that makes the story run smoothly. Thankfully, it works in such a way that its satire of 50's idealism in a modern world isn't tarnished, instead allowed to be as goofy as it wants. Reubens may get more credit for his performance, but imagine if his material was far less inspired. Why, it wouldn't be an "adventure" at all.

It is true that you could argue that the film's memorable moments are in the performance. You could even argue that the scenes are inconsequential. However, the idea to condense the story into something tangible is an underrated value. Its only flaw is that it isn't a complicated drama with a complicated story. The gist of The Alamo scene is that there's no basement. It's an easy joke, and one that could be seen by more jaded audience members. Still, there's value in being able to make something memorable and with enough quotable lines as "I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel." It could be that the cult around Pee-Wee Herman has grown exponentially in the decades since, but even then it explains the value of a potential nomination. If nothing else, it's one of the most assured comedies of the decade.

It makes sense that this category was overloaded with higher concept films like Back to the Future and The Purple Rose of Cairo. In their own rights, those films have aged just as well - if not more notably. Still, there's nothing wrong with a broad comedy making the cut when it's well made. It may be a moment of too many contenders to nominated, but I definitely think that Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is one of those films that would've added a nice and healthy diversity to the final results. Much like Bridesmaids in 2011, having that nomination makes the category seem richer and more impressive than the more limited acting fields. Considering that there's a new Pee-Wee Herman movie in 2016, it's safe to say that this film isn't going anywhere - even if its lack of overall nominations would suggest differently.

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