Charmingly funny things happen on the way to the Cuban Missile Crisis

January 29, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Bah! The problem with "Matinee" is that there's no despair, destruction or death! There's entirely too much simplicity, idealism and glee!

Why, this movie actually has the audacity to make you feel good all over on the way out! You don't want to stick up a 7-Eleven, you want to hug your loved ones and coo endearments to your children. It must be stopped!

But it won't be. "Matinee" is one of those rare, unifying, movie experiences that cuts across generation groupings to provide a rich and merry experience. It's the best at this game since "Back to the Future."

Of course it goes back to the past, the past of 1962, when two cultural phenomena were happening simultaneously: One, shlockster movie hustlers were developing more aggressive and outrageous stunts for luring people into their movies and two, the world was ending. Or so it seemed at the time, although maybe you had to be there. Does the phrase "Cuban Missile Crisis" mean anything to you?

The movie casts the great John Goodman, all 700 pounds of quivering greed and mendacious cunning, as the great Lawrence Woolsey, Hollywood's sleaziest impresario. Woolsey never met a man whose pockets he did not wish to pick. He has the huckster's abiding love of humanity; he believes in the

goodness of people which is why he tries so hard to swindle them. He's a self-decreed producer of third-rate horror movies (the model is the great William "The Tingler" Castle) for whom the movie is only the first 10 percent of the equation; the other 90 percent is the hustle. And for his new epic "Mant!" -- half man, half ant, all terror! -- he's really going for it.

There's Atomovision, there's Rumblerama, there's Electrobuttocks, there's Ant-o-vista, there's Nurse-o-checkup and there's almost World War III (brought to you by the miracle of atomic destruction!) The movie is extremely deft in the way it plays those mirror-image themes of the atomic age off against each other, that high-pitched, free-form anxiety called nuclearmitophobia (fear of dying in a 15,000 degree fireball) and its imaginative projection into cinema fable through the form of the monster movie.

Joe Dante is the clever director behind one of last true horror movies "The Howling" and several less clever goofs on horror, notably "Gremlins." He's obviously of a certain age (no, I won't say "fortysomething"; I have some pride, you know) and was formed in his prepubescent years as a supplicant in the cathedral of a bijoux in the blue glow of black-and-white destructorama: he watched the squid leave its heart in San Francisco, the beast trip the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York, the tarantula proclaim "Viva" in Las Vegas. He knows exactly the tropes of that energetic but trashy genre, and deadpans them adroitly, including the explanation-laden dialogue, the sepulchural tone of pseudo-science, the bad acting and the rickety but endearing special effects, as the film within the film unspools on the screen of the Strand, in Key West, Fla.

But equally interesting is what's going on outside the Strand. Neatly, Dante follows the tangled gyre of Key West society collapsing humorously under the premiere of "Mant!" and the stress of atomic oblivion. Who could blame it? The story centers on the family of a career naval officer whose husband-father is out on the wine-dark sea, intercepting Soviet missile freighters. Gene, the oldest boy, struggles, as did all '62's adolescents, with a number of approaching catastrophes, including puberty, love and fear of frying.

Gene is sweet, smart and fundamentally decent, and Dante uses him as a point-of-view character to examine icons of that brief, strange post-Elvis/pre-Beatle interregnum that has emerged as the Camelot in the collecting conscious of the aging baby-boomer population. It's amazing how complete the checklist in Charlie Haas' script with literal re-creations or at deft least allusions to: bomb shelters, Lenny Bruce, Charlie Starkweather, cheesy furniture, the nutritional glories of red meat, the importance of shredded wheat, duck-and-cover drills, beatniks, ban-the-bomb protesters, Mad, and so forth. If you were there, you'll giggle in recognition; if you weren't, you'll be amazed that your old parents could have been so foolish.

The plot animating this sarcastic anthropology is hectic, occasionally labored, but generally harmless. I wish it had been a bit tighter and had done a more amusing job working the movie-inside-the-movie into the movie-outside-the-movie. Also, I wanted to see the end of "Mant."

No one in the cast, including Simon Fenton as Gene, is up to Goodman, though Cathy Moriarty, as his astringent and fatigued star-girlfriend, is a wonderful foil to his extravagance of nature. The townies are all decent but forgettable.

Ah, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those were the days, my friend; we thought they'd end.

'Matinee'

Starring John Goodman.

Directed by Joe Dante.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG.

***

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