Wednesday 2 October 2013

Movie Review: Melvin And Howard (1980)

Based on a true story, Melvin And Howard enjoys a magical opening 20 minutes and an engaging ending. In the middle there is prolonged stretch of trailer park Americana that tends to drag, but the film has enough authentic essence to ultimately sparkle.

While performing stunts all alone, legendary multi-billionaire Howard Hughes (Jason Robards) crashes his motorcycle in the Nevada desert. Late at night, Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), an honest blue collar worker, stumbles across the battered old man by the side of the road, and helps Hughes without knowing who he is. Melvin gives Hughes a ride to Las Vegas, and on their overnight journey in a rickety pick-up truck, Melvin gets the crusty Hughes to open up a bit and sing a few songs. The two part ways and never see each other again.

For the next several years, Melvin gets on with his life, bouncing from job to job, always struggling to pay the bills, never too far ahead of the repossession companies, and doing his best to provide for his wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) and daughter Darcy. A frustrated Lynda gets finally fed up and leaves to become a stripper in low-life clubs, but the divorce is short lived: Melvin and Lynda re-marry. They finally stumble onto some unlikely money, but Melvin proves again that he is better at spending than making a living. Melvin and Lynda separate for good, and he marries Bonnie (Pamela Reed). When Howard Hughes dies, a mysterious will provides an absolute shock to Melvin' life.

Director Jonathan Demme conjures up an alluring opening to Melvin And Howard, a simple encounter elevated to a mystical plain. Two men from opposite ends of the social hierarchy, Melvin and Howard share the cab of a pick-up truck on an overnight trip that may as well be on a magic carpet. They connect thanks to Melvin's prodding that Howard go ahead and sing, music the universal language of humanity, and used here to bridge the enormous gulf that separates a reclusive rich man from the salt of the earth. The isolated road through the desert, a starry night sky, and two souls brought together briefly by a twist of fate: Demme delivers a sequence for the ages.

Melvin And Howard also ends with a sharp upswing, Hughes' mysterious will carrying the promise of untold riches for Melvin. The media circus and courtroom drama provide Melvin with more than 15 minutes of fame, the equivalent of a forgotten but disputed lottery ticket from years past proving to be a potential jackpot winner. Demme and screenwriter Bo Goldman hold the centre of the movie together by keeping Melvin's feet on the ground as the earth spins around him, for once the honesty of a life spent toiling for a living providing an anchor against swirling dreams.

It's the middle 45 minutes that pull the movie down a notch. Melvin's life between the encounter with Hughes and the discovery of the will is simply not that compelling. Fights and reconciliations with Lynda, a succession of jobs, constant arguments at work, and a battle to get ahead against the forces of poverty. It's all real, but also lacking the necessary sense of direction to maintain narrative momentum.

At least for this one film, Paul Le Mat fulfils the promise of American Graffiti. In a performance that is inherently likable, he gives Melvin a full heart as he hangs on to the hope required to sustain a life of hard knocks. Mary Steenburgen won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Lynda Dummar, a woman who very much wants to believe in her husband but would rather strip naked in front of strangers rather than suffer the humiliation of yet another repossession. Jason Robards owns the opening of the movie, his gruff and unfortunately short turn as Hughes simply unforgettable, a dazed tycoon rising mythically from the desert and forced to interact with a member of the rabble - and eventually liking it.

Melvin And Howard is the story of the American dream inadvertently brushing against the American dream come true. The result is a brief wobble in the predictable continuum of life, beautifully captured along the desert road.

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