Review of Matinee

Matinee (1993)
"It's not the Russians… it's Rumble-Rama!"
25 August 2016
When a light-hearted, nostalgic comedy opens with a nuclear explosion, you know you're onto something weird and original. Yet it's also comfortingly familiar. Matinée was made seven years after Back to the Future and is set (in 1962) seven years afterwards. In its style and tone it echoes Robert Zemeckis's blockbuster, but it wasn't embraced nearly so warmly by audiences.

Maybe it's because the backdrop is the harder sell of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Gene (Simon Fenton) is a young teen who lives on a naval base, and he's coming to terms with an absent military father who may never return. Some solace is arriving, however, as the B-movie tycoon Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) is coming to town to show off his new half-man/half-ant opus… "Mant".

The film establishes a broad cast of characters to populate Key West, including Gene's buddy Stan (Omri Katz), who's obsessed with the flirty Sherry (Kellie Martin). Gene himself, meanwhile, is courting the CND-conscious Sandra (Mrs Doubtfire's Lisa Jakub). While the parents panic about the impending nuclear annihilation, the schoolboys bicker and talk about girls.

The first half of the movie focuses on establishing the many characters, while the second half is dominated by the premiere of Mant itself and the (mostly) orchestrated chaos surrounding it. Suffice to say, the build-up – which does suffer slightly from minor character overload – is justified by the pay-off. The kids must sign a waiver before entering the theatre, and with good reason. "This crowd is turning into a mob," the producer yells at Woolsey – "congratulations!"

Writer Charles S. Haas has a brilliant ear for taut, funny dialogue that doesn't rely on punchlines, and the teenage dynamics are brilliantly observed. (The boys, anyway – the girls are more thinly sketched.) At the core of the film is Woolsey, whom we first see in Hitchcock-style silhouette, warning the audience about "atomic mutation". Goodman absolutely relishes his role, gleefully feeding his "AtomoVision!" and "Rumble-Rama!" to an audience hungry for event movie gimmicks.

Woolsey sees a business opportunity in the lightning-in-a-bottle moment of the Missile Crisis, keen to capitalise on the heightened national anxiety. Yet rather than making him the monster, the film skilfully presents Woolsey as a hero. Through him the film puts forth its paen to cinema as entertainment, and also a philosophical argument for the cathartic value of movie monsters as a way of exorcising a society's demons.

As with Tim Burton's masterpiece Ed Wood, director Joe Dante displays total affection for his subject matter, namely the monster flicks of the 1950s and '60s. Every period movie you can think of is referenced, but particularly Kurt Neumann's The Fly. We see plenty of footage of Mant and it is entirely convincing (by which I mean appropriately unconvincing), and avoids mocking its myriad sources.

"Put the insect aside!" one character begs the half-man/half-ant, to which he replies, "Insecticide? Where?!" Meanwhile, in the world of Dante's film, Woolsey is hurling special effects around the auditorium, spilling smoke and rumbling seats, literally bringing the house down. When the Mant cast start directly referencing the Matinée audience, who are in turn being watched by us, it feels like Amblin's answer to Inception.

For those who enjoy the smart satire of The 'Burbs and the frenetic farce of Gremlins, this is a similarly genre-dodging yet relatively overlooked Dante classic. It's a film about films they don't make anymore – and, in our less kind-spirited age of comedy archness, they really don't make them like this anymore.
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