Taking place during the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962, Matinee follows an assortment of characters in Key West, Florida as they try to navigate a world that could succumb to nuclear war at any moment. Among these characters are siblings Gene (Simon Fenton) and Dennis Loomis (Jesse Lee) as well as rebellious girl Sandra (Lisa Jakub). All the various plotlines involving Gene and Sandra's classmates, as well as the other resident of Key West, Florida, converge on an advanced Saturday screening of a new film called Mant. The feature hails from schlock extraordinaire Lawrence Woodley (John Goodman). He's got the media persona of Alfred Hitchock but the filmography of Roger Corman.
Throughout the various stories of Matinee, the hopeful attitude that the practice of watching movies can unite people is palpable throughout. At a movie screening, you can hold hands with a person you like. You can bond with your younger sibling. You can meet new friends. You can be united in fear, laughter, and joy with hundreds of strangers. Matinee even reflects on how watching films can unite us with absent loved ones. At one point, Gene stumbles onto his mom watching old home videos of his dad, who's off in the United States Navy. She tears up watching this footage of her significant other, her only current link to the man she loves.
This poignant sequence encapsulates the power movies can have. Ditto for a mid-movie scene where Woodley walks Gene through the process of walking through the entrance of a movie theater. Told in a single take through Woodley's point-of-view, Goodman's assured narration takes the viewer through all the little details that make the moviegoing experience wondrous. In the wrong hands, this scene could have ended up being a self-aggrandizing exercise more fitting for a Cinemark commercial than a narrative film. But screenwriter Charles S. Haas and John Goodman both lend such sincerity to the sequence that it's impossible not to buy into the magic.
Goodman's performance is full of that kind of unexpected genuineness. Rather than play Woodley as a charlatan, Goodman portrays this film producer as the cinema world's equivalent of John Hammond. He just wants to use advanced technology to put on one heck of a show for the public. That wholehearted commitment to his craft is something Goodman realizes beautifully, he imbues the role with such an engaging heart. The assorted supporting performances are also enjoyable, particularly the actors performing in the in-movie Mant. They perfectly capture the acting style of mid-20th-century B-movies while also delivering humorous performances in their own right.
Joe Dante directs Matinee with an assured hand. This is particularly true in how he balances the wackier elements of the story with a melancholy undercurrent stemming from potential nuclear annihilation. Having already done a family movie that involved a girl recounting how her dad died dressing up as Santa Clause, the tonally expansive world of Matinee is no challenge for Dante! The love Dante carries for the art of cinema proves to be the perfect compliment to Haas' screenplay. Fusing together Haas' writing with Dante's direction and Goodman's lead performance ensures that Matinee is the kind of movie you wouldn't mind paying Friday night ticket prices for!