Film Reviews

Melvin and Howard Jonathan Demme

Rating - 7/10

There are some films based on true events so bizarre, so peculiar and outlandish in their basic composition that a minor verification of the facts is required after viewing. One such story is the inspiration for Jonathan Demme’s 1980 film Melvin and Howard; an offbeat comedic retelling of the purported real-life encounter between Utah gas station owner Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards).

In 1976, Dummar became the principal figure in a national controversy, when he was listed as a beneficiary of $156 million dollars in the former aeronautic and film mogul’s supposed handwritten will. According to Dummar, the pair had briefly met along a stretch of Highway 95 in the Nevada desert, after Hughes had crashed his motorcycle.

Demme’s film commences with Hughes’ alleged accident and the ensuing conversations shared between the boisterous Melvin and the reluctant and unkempt Hughes on the way to Las Vegas. Upon dropping off his dishevelled passenger at the Las Vegas Sands Hotel, Melvin hands the man some loose change and dismisses the traveller’s claims that he is in fact Howard Hughes. Except for a brief flashback in the final moments, Hughes is never seen again in Melvin and Howard. Yet Hughes is a phantom, ethereal presence throughout Demme’s film: bookending Melvin and Howard’s opening and final moments and impressing a dexterous charisma that remains in spite of his absence.
The remainder of Demme’s slow-moving, quirky film constitutes Melvin’s financial and marital woes. Foremost is his continual inability to satisfy his first wife Lynda, a lively dancer (Mary Steenburgen), who tires of Melvin’s unquenchable dreams and inability to release the family from the cycle of poverty and material destitution that repeatedly beckons each time the couple tries to live beyond their modest means.
Surprisingly, his litany of failures and acts of financial mismanagement rarely denigrate his carefree and dignified approach to life. Whilst Melvin finds fleeting comfort in his abortive attempts at striking it rich as a country singer or as a contestant on a local game show, the creditors and repo men persist. Uneducated and technically limited in his skills, Melvin works shifts in magnesium plants and as a milkman, but never reaches any higher than the coveted “Milkman of the Month” award.
Interestingly, Demme’s film juxtaposes instinctive dreamers like Melvin with cultural machinations that project and pitch these unattainable material aspirations to the masses through the media. Melvin’s desires are based in objects of value that embody a modicum of luxury detached from the penury of working-class life: Cadillacs, speedboats, suburban homes with fancy homes and large colour televisions. It is in these elements that Demme’s film still rings with an evocative sentiment now all-too-familiar for contemporary audiences.
Melvin is a perennial loser, but Demme’s film and Bo Goldman’s imaginative Academy Award winning script never chastise or belittle Melvin for his ineptitude, nor his situation. In their respective words and visuals, Melvin transforms into the type of flawed and easily duped, small-town protagonists prevalent in the work of Preston Sturges in films like Christmas in July (1940) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). Le Mat’s good-natured performance embodies a figure equipped with uninhibited belief in his ability to prosper despite the no-win nature of his circumstances.
Mary Steenburgen’s Academy Award winning performance as Lynda, Melvin’s long-suffering first wife, is filled with vibrancy, but also contains an understated strength that allows her bright character to flourish independently. However, it is Jason Robards’ brief work as Howard Hughes that lingers most effectively throughout Demme’s ninety-five minute comedy. Whenever Robards is not physically present in Melvin and Howard, his presence is noticeably missed. During its duller moments, one wishes that Robards' droll codger would reappear to simply supply an additional angle to compensate for the thinness of Melvin and Howard's narrative.
Nevertheless, this is a film about Melvin and not Howard. So much so that neither Demme, nor Goldman make much of an attempt to either incorporate or impress an opinion regarding the validity of Melvin’s claim to Hughes’ fortune. Instead, Demme attempts to locate a kernel of truth about Middle America and the modern working-class experience; a facet neither shaped by labour nor trade associations, but encompassed in the unsatisfying aura of dusty dreams of showbiz glitz and material wealth.