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A wacko comedy that harks back to Jerry Lewis

At first I was shy about liking ``Pee-wee's Big Adventure'' as much as I did. When people asked, I said it was ``interesting'' and ``unusual,'' and hoped they wouldn't press the matter. But why be cagey? ``Pee-wee's Big Adventure'' is interesting and unusual, which is more than I can say about most recent releases. In fact, it's a true original -- a comedy maverick that looks and feels like no other movie I know.

To call the plot a trifle would be to magnify it beyond reason: Pee-wee looks for his stolen bike, and that's about it. But narrative sophistication is not the raison d'etre of the work. Pee-wee is.

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And a terrific raison d'etre he turns out to be. Yes, he's a pipsqueak and a weirdo. But he loves life. And life reciprocates by loving him back. No problem is too dire for this arrangement. When catastrophe looms, Pee-wee giggles at it. If this fails, he giggles again. And sure enough, he gets his bike back. Who can argue with results?

I know this all sounds silly. But arrested development has always made a hit with moviegoers, and Pee-wee has a long pedigree in Hollywood films, with such antic ancestors as Jerry Lewis and -- back in the silent days -- Harry Langdon, the granddaddy of them all.

Even in this company, though, Pee-wee is unique. He has a murky intelligence that Langdon rarely showed. And his infantile mannerisms (contorted face, strained voice, idiot gestures) aren't as aggressive as Lewis's usually are. This is a key to Pee-wee's appeal. His giggles, guffaws, and whoops aren't just noisy attention-grabbers. This guy is really delighted with the eternally suburban world that he wanders through like a charmed child. He shows it by chuckling softly to himself now and then, savoring

some private joke that we ``wouldn't understand, shouldn't understand'' -- to borrow a phrase from one of his more bizarre speeches.

Three cheers also for Tim Burton, who directed the romp. His visual style is as crisp, clean, and uncluttered as Pee-wee's eternally pressed suit -- a perfect match for the movie's straightforwardly odd material. And there's at least one sight gag, involving a ghostly character named Large Marge, that should go down as a classic. I won't give it away, but be alert for it, because it whizzes by with the speed and subtlety of expert comic filmmaking.

It's too bad the whole movie doesn't whiz by so efficiently. Edited down by half, to about Pee-wee's size, it would be a wacko masterpiece. As it stands, it's a little tiring but great fun anyway -- a law unto itself, and the most avant-garde Hollywood picture in ages.

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