The criminally underrated Matinee is Joe Dante's best movie. It combines everything that is so wonderful about him as a filmmaker -- his love of movies (particularly old monster and sci-fi movies), his wicked sense of humor, his mistrust of large institutions and his glee in the effects of anarchy -- and packages it in a way that's commercially accessible and uncharacteristically gentle and sweet without having to sacrifice his unique voice. You wouldn't even know it's a Joe Dante movie if you weren't already someone who recognizes that it's the most Joe Dante movie of all the Joe Dante movies.
Matinee tells the story of two hugely significant historical events taking place in 1962 Key West. The first is the test screening of a new giant monster movie called MANT!, directed by Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), a William Castlesque huckster who specializes in horror movies with gimmicky releases. His latest, MANT!, is being presented in his new "process," called Atom-O-Vision -- the speakers are cranked way up, the seats shake, etc -- so Woolsey rolls into town with his girlfriend/star Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty) to win the town over and set up his premiere.
The second is the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Matinee was released in late January 1993, not making much of an impact and grossing under $10 million at the box office. I caught up with it at the second-run theater near my house about a month later with no expectations and barely an idea of what it was even about. While I was aware of Joe Dante as a filmmaker -- he was the guy who made Gremlins and Innerspace -- I'm not even sure I knew he was the director of Matinee. I sat down in the theater a blank slate. The movie was a delight: funny, warm, pushing a bunch of my buttons in addressing so many of the things I love. It's the kind of movie that doesn't really get made at a major studio anymore, and I left the theater wondering why more people weren't talking about it, but didn't necessarily think about it much more than that.
Simply as a Joe Dante fan, the movie is a delight. Many members of his unofficial repertory company make appearances, including Dick Miller and John Sayles (who wrote Piranha and The Howling), Robert Picardo, Belinda Balaski, William Schallert and Kevin McCarthy (both playing characters in MANT!) and Archie Hahn, who appears in The Shook-up Shopping Cart, one of my favorite gags in the movie (his co-star is a young Naomi Watts). Many of the best scenes come from the movie-within-a-movie MANT!, which is a perfect and totally affectionate recreation of late '50s sci-fi horror, from the overly-explanatory scientist ("He'll begin to metamorphose...or 'change'") to the lunatic ramblings of the protagonist as he transforms and loses his sanity (at one point he shatters an ant farm, shouting "Be free! Be free my brothers and sisters!") Matinee would be worth seeing just for the genius of MANT!, but because it's a masterpiece everything happening outside that film is wonderful, too.
When Matinee was originally released on laserdisc, one of the special features was the ability to watch all of the MANT! sequences cut together as its own standalone film. It's a ton of fun, but watching it altogether like that reveals just how brilliantly Dante spaced out the scenes and used all the best stuff in Matinee. It works better in the context of the movie proper than on its own.
Dante, a filmmaker fascinated by systemic breakdowns, has also always demonstrated an interest in the failure of technology -- these devices on which we depend so heavily will ultimately let us down. It's true of Rand Peltzer's inventions in the original Gremlins; it's true of the technology the boys use to build their ship in Explorers (which fails them until it doesn't). Nowhere is it more true than in Gremlins 2's Clamp Towers, an enormous monolith to technology that only malfunctions and wreaks havoc (leading to the movie's best line: "If you build a place for things, things come.") Nothing in Matinee works the way its supposed to either, from the equipmen Woolsey is using for RumbleRama and Atom-O-Vision to the bomb shelter built in the theater's basement by its nervous owner Howard (Robert Picardo). It closes prematurely, its air intake system won't work without being set manually and, best of all, the supposedly impenetrable fortress is easily cracked open by John Goodman and a crowbar.
Walter Sobchak, for crying out loud). His Lawrence Woolsey is funny and flashy and big-hearted, both a realist about the world and a dreamer of what is possible. He's a storyteller, a showman and a con man, but the kind by whom we love to be conned -- he's a filmmaker, after all. There is a joy to Goodman's performance that makes it impossible not to fall in love with Woolsey, a guy who is larger-than-life and exploding with personality. Those qualities are reflected in his movies, too. We see him through the eyes of his longtime girlfriend (played with terrific world-weariness by Cathy Moriarty), who is dragged along and asked to do ridiculous things like dress as a nurse to stand around in the theater lobby and collect fake waivers from the audience. She's impatient and often fed up with Woolsey, but she can't help but love the big lug. It's a great representation of our own feelings towards him: we should know better but we love him anyway. We know he's fooling us but we want to be fooled.
The fact that Woolsey takes Gene under his wing and lets him work on the movie (only after Gene engages in some light blackmail) is another of the film's delights -- the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy of every monster kid who ever dreamed of getting to spend time around one of his or her heroes. And though Gene's father isn't in the picture (he's stationed elsewhere), Gene doesn't relate to Woolsey in a paternal way until the final few scenes. Like a lot of Joe Dante's protagonists -- whether it's Billy with the Mogwai in Gremlins or Alan with the Gorgonites in Small Soldiers or even the boys with the aliens in Explorers, Gene is best able to relate with an outside that understands him. The kids at school don't understand Gene's obsession with monster movies, but Lawrence Woolsey sure does ("It's hard to believe you're a grown-up," Gene tells him). As much as the movie is a love letter to old monster movies and the theatergoing experience, it's the friendship between Gene and Woolsey that gives Matinee its enormous beating heart.
Matinee is a gift -- a movie that feels like it shouldn't exist and yet somehow does. To say that I love it somehow still undersells just how strongly I feel about it. Both an affirmation and a celebration of why we love movies, it is also a wonderful coming of age story and an effective historical fiction that says something larger about the human condition. While it may not be an Exploding Heart movie for everyone the way it is for me, I hope that some of you will use this 1993 Week as an opportunity to check it out. It is beautiful and perfect and it features more than one guy in a rubber ant suit. Why else do we go to the movies?