Melvin and Howard (1980) / Drama-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for nudity and language
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Paul Le Mat, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Elizabeth Cheshire, Pamela Reed, Chip Taylor, Michael J. Pollard, Robert Ridgely, Charles Napier, John Glover, Dabney Coleman, Melvin Dummar
Director: Jonathan Demme
Screenplay: Bo Goldman
There are a few acclaimed films that seem very fresh and original at the time, but over time, they are forgotten by most except the people who championed them because they really weren't as exceptional as previously thought. Melvin and Howard strikes me as one of those movies. It marked the first critical breakthrough for director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, The Truth About Charlie), and two Oscars, one for the screenplay by Bo Goldman (Meet Joe Black, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and one for Best Supporting Actress for Mary Steenburgen (Hope Springs, Elf). Jason Robards (All the President's Men, Quick Change) would also get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Melvin and Howard starts off with poor everyman Melvin Dummar driving through the highway near the Nevada desert one evening, only to come across what appears to be a transient who is lying off the road, near dead from the cold evening air. Melvin assists the man into his truck, driving him to Vegas to get some aid, and long the way, getting to know him a bit. The man turns out to be none other than eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, although Melvin doesn't really believe it at the time, especially when he has to lend him some money on the end of their journey together. The film then depicts Melvin's life afterward, his on-again, off-again romance with his kooky stripper wife, Lynda, and his troubles with finances mostly caused by his own negligent nature. Then the biggest news hits when a will is discovered in Melvin's office, purportedly from Howard Hughes, which leaves Melvin a beneficiary to receive over $150 million.
Although mostly based on a true story, or at least, Melvin's version pf the truth, doubts still linger today as to just what is accurate and what is the fanciful embellishment of a poor, unlucky slob with dreams to be someone. The movie never really indicates how it feels about Melvin's claims one way or another, although Demme does shoot the film straightforward from Melvin's recollections, which would lead to a less ambiguous telling.
As a movie, it's a hit-and-miss bag, only really coming to life when Melvin and Howard are conversing, and also in a sequence depicting Lynda's appearance on a game show reminiscent of "Lets Make a Deal". Although the title leads you to believe that the film is about Hughes and Dummar, only the very beginning and end sequences deal with their short-lived relationship. The bulk of the movie centers around the less-than-extraordinary events in the life of Melvin, which really isn't that remarkable in terms of building a movie around.
Melvin and Howard is as strange and eccentric as Dummar himself, feeling like an outlandish odyssey of one man through some rather bizarre set of circumstances. It feels like a fable, and possibly for good reason. Critical accolades notwithstanding, this is a rather ordinary film about an ordinary man who met an extraordinary one, or at least claimed to. Without that, all we're left with is just an ordinary film about an ordinary man, and for about 80% of the film's running length, it sure feels like it.
©2005 Vince Leo