On its 30th anniversary, Joe Dante’s timeless Matinee remains one of the best movies about movies ever made
NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the January 27, 2023 edition of the Seattle Gay News. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher Angela Craigin.
I cannot say Joe Dante is the only filmmaker who could have made Matinee. I do believe he is one of a scant few who could have made it great. Dante brings an affectionate grace to the material that’s apparent right from the start, during the presentation of the faux trailer featuring larger-than-life filmmaker Lawrence Woolsey (a perfectly cast John Goodman) discussing his latest high-concept, low-budget creature feature Mant.
Yet the director isn’t above lacing this nostalgic warmth with hints of melancholy and regret. This makes the world Dante creates intimately authentic. This isn’t a melodramatic peek in the cultural rearview mirror. Instead, Matinee uses its 1962 Key West, Florida, setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis to showcase characters caught up in events far beyond their control but who still attempt to make the best of them.
They love. They laugh. They shriek. They cry. They persevere. Most of all, they live. Because they do, Dante’s wryly comedic drama ends up so enchantingly timeless that over the last three decades, it has quietly become one of the greatest movies about making movies ever made.
Not bad for a small, initially dismissed oddity that was a box office disappointment for Universal Pictures when it was released in January 1993. The studio had no idea what to do with Matinee (something Dante frequently admits when interviewed). The original trailers were a tonal mishmash that oversold the silly “monster movie” facets of the narrative and minimized the Cuban Missile Crisis and the teenage coming-of-age elements. They made it look broad and cartoonish, with Goodman as the P.T. Barnum–style ringmaster lording over it all.
None of that is true. Dante gives his teenage protagonists — lonely military brat Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), his new friend Stan (Omri Katz), budding hippie Sandra (Lisa Jakub), and vivacious heartbreaker Sherry (Kellie Martin) — the center ring. They are the ones who drive events forward, not Goodman’s William Castle–like showman Woolsey. Their lives intersect with his, and everyone learns valuable lessons they’ll take with them into an uncertain future, with an understanding that each day is to be treasured, and every moment — even the difficult ones — is a gift worth celebrating.
It all resonates because Dante refuses to get oversentimental or allow the comedy to become cartoonish. Key West even becomes a character, as vital a member of the ensemble as each actor. No one overplays their hand. There aren’t any moments where anyone is seen winking at the camera or trying to call attention to how inherently silly the various elements fueling much of Charlie Haas’s excellent screenplay may be.
This includes the movie within the movie, Mant. In lesser hands, this goofy knockoff would be more Airplane! or Scary Movie than it is an affectionate Tarantula meets Them! meets The Fly homage. It’s clear Dante instructed his cast and crew to treat this bit of silliness with the same sort of respect and sincerity filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Ray Harryhausen, and Gordon Douglas insisted upon when crafting similar genre fare in the 1950s. Because this “fake” flick feels real, it makes the reactions of the raucous members of the audience seeing it for the first time equally authentic.
But this is the secondary story. The central plot revolves around Gene, a horror fanatic new to Key West who, just as he’s trying to settle in at a new school for what feels like the hundredth time, sees his dad shipped off to Cuba as part of the naval blockade encircling the island. With his mom (Lucinda Jenney) trying to hold it together as best she can, the teen retreats to the local theater and ends up making friends with Woolsey on the eve of his new film’s world premiere.
Goodman is magnificent, delivering a multilayered, surprisingly understated performance that ranks as one of the celebrated actor’s best. A perfectly cast Cathy Moriarty is a constant delight, while Dante regulars John Sayles, Dick Miller, William Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, and especially a hysterically befuddled Robert Picardo populate key supporting roles. Particularly wonderful is The Thing from Another World star Robert Cornthwaite, who pops up in Mant as a scientist, and I’m filled with joy every time I watch the film and he’s on the screen making beautiful music out of the purposefully corny pseudoscientific dialogue.
Back in 1993, I could see that Dante was telling a story that was as much about what was happening in the world then as he was looking back at the Cuban Missile Crisis and what it was like to live under the constant worry that nuclear annihilation was right around the corner. Then was now, now was then, and much like Lawrence Woolsey, Dante was craftily holding up a mirror in front of his audience, knowing what they’d see would be far more thrilling than even the most extravagant nightmare he could invent.
Now, with society still reeling from COVID-19, the mirror Matinee holds up to its audience hasn’t dulled in the slightest. Love. Laugh. Shriek. Cry. Make every second count. Most of all, live. The life lessons Dante was imparting 30 years ago are as vital now as they ever were then, making Matinee a modern classic ripe for rediscovery.
Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Matinee is available on Blu-ray and DVD and to purchase digitally on multiple platforms.