There was a time when I thought there were two kinds of movies, those for dudes and chick flicks. In my defense, I was raised to believe boys played with trucks, not their sister’s dolls (I loved the robot/vehicle Transformers toys because they were both.)
The amount of constant brainwashing modern American gender norms require is astonishing, and we’d all be better off just accepting that, for the most part, manliness is one of many choices, like salad dressings.
Here’s an example of this conditioning: I once refused to use my girlfriend’s deodorant because it was made for her, even though it was strong enough for me. Here’s another example: I used to buy Hungry Man frozen dinners even though lady-friendly Lean Cuisine’s Chicken Fettucine tasted better.
So that’s why I thought the same thing about movies: Robocop is for men, Steel Magnolias is for women, even though they both made me cry because I am a sensitive human being just trying to do his best with the talents and time given to him. If you had asked me years ago what the greatest guy movies are, I’d have rattled off prison-break bromance Shawshank Redemption, underdog classic Rocky, or anything with Clint Eastwood in it. A guy movie is a movie about a guy punching or shooting, sewing up his wounds, and dispensing justice.
These movies aren’t just for men, of course, but marketing is a religion that likes things simple. Who doesn’t think Die Hard is excellent? Put Die Hard on the next deep space probe so the aliens can learn that human beings rule. I mean, Clueless is an excellent movie from start to finish. So when I write about guy movies, I’m writing about movies for anyone of any gender identity, really, because we can all enjoy movies about heroes in heels or cowboy boots.
That said, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a hell of a guy movie.
The world would be better if more boys watched Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and then wanted to grow up to be Pee-Wee Herman.
It’s a movie with everything a guy could want, like laughs and action and James Bond-like gadgets, including smokescreens, oil slicks, and giant rubber thumbs.
There are bad hombres and hobos and evil lumberjacks. Pee-Wee is a vigilante. There are chase scenes.
The 1985 comedy classic was blockbuster movie director Tim Burton’s first feature, and it might be one of his best since his delightfully off-kilter imagination was purely in the service of another artist’s vision, namely Paul Rueben, the comedian who created the mischievous boyish character Pee-Wee Herman in the L.A. improv scene of the late 70s. The movie was co-written by Rueben's friend Phil Hartman, who would later become famous on SNL and The Simpsons.
Reubens played Pee-Wee perfectly, appearing on late-night TV and taping specials for most of the 80s until getting his big-screen break. Burton, up until that point, had been living in Hollywood as an animator and had a few short movies under his belt.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is the story about one boy’s quest to find his stolen bike. The movie’s road trip is a loosely connected series of comedy gags, some corny and others wonderfully surreal, from a phantom truck driver to a dance scene to the song ‘Tequila’ that wins over a bar full of bikers called “Satan’s Helpers.” It is the only truly good movie that features the Alamo in a semi-positive light.
Paul Rueben’s Pee-Wee Herman is a flesh and blood cartoon, a bow-tie-wearing, noodle-limbed Loki, and everyone who identifies as a man should look up to him. He is the ideal masculine role model.
The character is part of a long tradition of cinematic clowns, like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. Pee-Wee is a genuinely unique comic creation who is both a child and a grown-up at the same time, a spoiled brat and a good boy.
But most of all, Pee-Wee is honest. He is true to himself. He is loyal. He has his own sense of style. His home is cluttered but tidy, with comfy furniture, eye-popping toys, and decorative knick-knacks. He buys his friends candy and doesn’t jump into relationships quickly. And he’s not afraid to go on adventures or stand up for himself.
Pee-Wee has a dog and a community, and his love is unconditional. He may call himself a loner and a rebel but he’s neither, really. He’s just a dude who is into red bowties, starting each day with a healthy breakfast and maybe biking into town to stock up on pranks like trick gum.
He is happy to advise friends while watching the sunrise from inside the mouth of a giant walk-up Tyrannosaurus Rex sculpture in the desert.
Pee-Wee is also fearless: he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him. His famous catchphrase, “I know you are, but what am I” is Marcus Aurelius level of wisdom. He spends his life playing and acting silly and he takes both seriously and honestly, that’s a winning formula for happiness. Pee-Wee is a reminder that innocence and naivete are not the same things, and that one should try to see the world through the eyes of a child, which means opening your heart to new opportunities.
If there’s a better blueprint for how to be a man, I don’t know it.