Director Jonathan Demme finally escaped the genre-movie ghetto with his sixth feature film, Melvin and Howard, an offbeat character study that sprang from a strange real-life episode. As written by Bo Goldman, who won an Oscar for his script, the movie tells the story of Melvin Dummar, a truck driver who claimed that he once gave reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes a ride through the Nevada desert—and that after Hughes’ death, a mystery man discreetly provided Melvin with a handwritten will granting Dummar a chunk of Hughes’ fortune. Yet the most unique (and most frustrating) aspect of Melvin and Howard is that the Hughes connection is largely incidental to the overall story—it’s merely the most colorful episode in Melvin’s pathetic odyssey.
Melvin and Howard opens with a quick bit of Hughes (Jason Robards) driving a motorcycle across the desert until he has an accident. Then Melvin (Paul Le Mat) drives by and discovers a bedraggled old man with wild hair lying immobile by the side of the road. Melvin offers the disoriented stranger a ride. During the ensuing trek, the passenger identifies himself as Howard Hughes, but Melvin is skeptical. After Melvin drops off his passenger, Melvin returns to his grim life, where he lives in a trailer with his volatile wife, Lynda (Mary Steenburgen). Melvin’s drinking, inability to hold a job, and lack of steady money drives Lynda away, so she eventually leaves him, taking their child along. Melvin rebounds by getting a job driving a milk truck, and he remarries, this time to the more stable Bonnie (Pamela Reed). Eventually, Melvin and Bonnie set up house in a domicile adjoining the rural gas station of which Melvin becomes the manager.
And that’s where the mystery man (Charles Napier) deposits the handwritten will. A peculiar legal battle ensues, with court officials and lawyers accusing Melvin of fabricating both the will and the story about giving Hughes a ride. Concurrently, Demme and Goldman play narrative games that challenge the audience to guess whether or not Melvin’s version of events is sincere. Although Melvin and Howard deserves ample credit for giving attention to the types of people Hollywood usually ignores—bums and drunks and losers—it’s more than a little bewildering. Melvin isn’t particularly interesting or sympathetic, and neither are the people around him. Furthermore, because the real court case went against Melvin, raising the strong possibility that he made up his story, the movie represents a missed opportunity to tell a yarn about a brazen scam artist.
In the end, Melvin and Howard feels a bit like a character study of the schmuck next door experiencing his 15 minutes of fame. The problem is that the movie runs a whole lot longer than 15 minutes, and Demme—as has been his wont throughout his career—often seems more interested in peripheral moments than in scenes that actually drive the main story. So, while there’s something fundamentally humane about the overall endeavor, there’s also something mildly exploitive, with the clueless have-nots from America’s heartland presented somewhat like freaks in a sideshow.
Melvin and Howard: FUNKY