Melvin & Howard (1980)

Rates: * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Classic film club night, the film we had chosen was not working, fatiekitz had this one downloaded and ready to rumble.

Cast, crew, etc.

Melvin Dummar is a good natured schmo who works odd jobs and has fracturous relationships with a couple of temperamental women. He also claims that he gave Howard Hughes a lift once, and later produces a will claiming that Hughes had left him $156 million (Hughes famously left no will, when he died).

But to think of this as another Howard Hughes movie is a mistake.

This is a slice of Americana, focussing on a handful of misfit types, their unique worldviews, and their unlikely dreams; simultaneously both as likely as pigs might fly, and as American as apple pie. I mean, what could be more American than dreaming of a big pile of money?

Dummar and his on-again off-again first wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen: brilliant) first set their sights on a local, low rent game show. When Steenburgen’s tap dancing routine lands them the big prize – TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS! – all their problems seem to be solved. But insolvency and divorce are actually just round the corner, and this ties in to one of the themes of the movie; it is one thing to dream, but what happens if they actually come true? It is a bit like the old joke about a dog chasing a car; part of what spurs the dog on is knowing that they can’t catch it, and they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did.

Dummar will try other, more conventional lines of work, and another marriage with a different woman. But nothing he takes on ever seems to work out. He was, seemingly, born under a bad sign. When the Hughes will surfaces and the court case goes against him, he just shrugs:

‘As if Melvin Dummar was ever going to inherit $156 million,’ he says.

Which isn’t really fair. Melvin, for all of his faults, is kind hearted and generous, great with his kid, optimistic and upbeat. He deserves his run of bad luck about as much as Hughes deserves his good fortune; not at all. Neither of them has really done anything much to get to where they are, at opposite ends of the success spectrum, they are simply products of the American economy, which is good at keeping rich people rich, and preventing poor people from joining them.

Colourful, lively and briskly paced, Jonathan Demme has a sure grasp of this material, and these characters. As a director he would prove to be a great humanist, and this early film is one where you can see his future aptitude for telling stories about life’s stragglers in full development.

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