Melvin and Howard May 17, 2017
Few American films capture the bittersweet simplicity of lower-middle-class living as poignantly as Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard (1980). A kitchen-sink comedy based on true events, it is concerned with the life of Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), a sweet if hapless milkman who lives a relatively aimless existence. Married to Lynda (Mary Steenburgen), a fickle brunette who threatens to leave him so often it sometimes seems like a character quirk, and a father to a handful of precious little tots, he’s not much more than an exemplification of the average Joe. He works from 9 to 5, loves his family, and would be perfectly okay calling a few days in front of the television with a beer in hand a holiday.
Most of Melvin and Howard doesn’t make him out to be someone special. He is, rather, an uncomplicated everyman we watch go through the motions of life, usually revolving around his tumultuous first marriage and eventually his second, with Lynda replaced by the more sturdy Bonnie (Pamela Reed).
But there’s one thing which makes Melvin briefly remarkable in the eyes of the public, and that’s his accidental connection to the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards). As the film opens, Melvin is driving his pickup down U.S. Highway 95, the sky clear and grey and the air warm. He stops on the side of the road to relieve himself, only to be coerced into taking a disheveled stranger to Las Vegas. The conversation which comes to fruition is stilted, awkward. But toward the end of the trip does the scraggly man state that he is, in fact, Howard Hughes.
Melvin laughs it off. But then the film’s finale makes it clear that the stranger really was Hughes: a mysterious envelope, marked “Last Will and Testament of Howard Hughes,” falls into his hands and leads him to what will come to be his 15 minutes of fame and perhaps the last thing Hughes ever did which solidified his standing as a truly bizarre public figure. Courtroom antics mushroom, of course. But in the end, all Melvin ever gets away with is an entertaining story to tell his future grandkids.
And yet the film seems so unconcerned with the Hughes affair that it comes to be something of an afterthought until the last part of the feature’s final act. What Melvin and Howard is is a delicate, Altman-esque slice of life which seems to come to the conclusion that its titular hero’s story itself wouldn’t be all that noteworthy if not for the accidental, albeit brief, fame which characterized the earlier portion of his adult life.
But in a departure from the conventional, we’re much more compelled by sequences which find Melvin and his love ones simply living — the Hughes shenanigans are bookends which provide an excuse as to why this man’s life should be the subject of a movie anyway. Most mainstream filmmakers would milk the courtroom sprinklings for all their melodramatic glory. But with Melvin and Howard, Demme seems to consider them an annoyance.
Because what’s really important is the showcasing of the desperation so many of these characters are tormented by. Initially, Lynda’s capriciousness is humorous — she offhandedly “deserts” Melvin regularly, sometimes works as a stripper, and at one point even tap dances to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” at an event that looks and feels something like The Gong Show. But at some point we come to realize that all this is actually sad. What Lynda really desires is success, and she’s well aware that the current life she’s living isn’t going to get her there. But if she ever will get There™ is the real question.
Melvin’s second wife has success practically handed to her: she’s set to inherit a relative’s service station and continue running the business herself. In Melvin and Howard, this is the equivalent of winning the lottery, and there’s something invigorating about the way the film can elevate the triumphs of the everyday to something much more cinematic.
Because there’s a tendency for our materialistic Hollywood to sometimes overlook the beauty of the highs and lows of people who get their groceries at Safeway, shop at the Goodwill, stay overnight in a Motel 6 on vacation. Melvin and Howard is merely a look inside the life of an ordinary man, his short experiences with fame peppering the scenery when least expected. The movie is warm and it’s funny, and maybe even melancholy. But that’s its victory — it encapsulates the human experience, warts and all. B+