Melvin and Howard (1980, Jonathan Demme)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard — a California/Nevada travelogue of sorts — is less about the real events it dramatizes than about the world in which those events took place. Demme’s rural dwellers are sitting on the cusp of one of the booming hearts of the planet, and their brush with a human artifact from the era that nursed them is a call to attention, crossing generational lines. It feels relevant just as much to the world any one of us knows, to whatever transformations we’ve watched since our childhoods. To put it more bluntly: I lasted a whole 25 minutes before I started to cry. Somewhere around “Thanks for the sandwich, Mom.”

The story, an instantly recognizable Americana twist on Great Expectations, is of Melvin Dummar’s encounter on the freeway one night with an injured Howard Hughes, the pair sparring in the personage of a loudmouthed Paul Le Mat and an enjoyably grumpy yet serene Jason Robards. Melvin’s favor for Hughes — a ride, a few quarters, and a song — has unexpected rewards and repercussions years down the line. The film is about those years, and that line, rather than about the opening and closing bursts that encapsulate the Howard Hughes story that caught national attention — that is, Hughes’ supposed leaving of a huge sum of money to Dummar after his death.

The best word for this impeccable film is “grace.” Dave Kehr isn’t exaggerating when he declares Melvin and Howard a portrait of middle class America in its richest joys and most painful limitations. Given the mainstream Hollywood we know now, it’s startling how utterly real these people seem (and only in part because they’re not fictional characters), how your heart goes out to them, how the humor of this bizarre situation (and the ups and downs along the way) is offset by the empathy we all feel for things that seem so familiar. The movie celebrates life as a series of moments of both unconditional love and an inscrutable sadness, sometimes both at once. Instead of attempting to duplicate some external idea of “ordinary,” it celebrates the experience shared by everyone on this planet (or at the very least, in this country) by denying that there’s anything ordinary about any of it — and by reinforcing that said moments, which may lead somewhere or nowhere, are all we get. Without overplaying its hand at any point, it is sincerely, profoundly moving.

Melvin is yet another adult child, this one more Barry Lyndon than Norman Bates, a guy seemingly incapable of being satisfied, always looking out for quick fixes ahead of long-term resolutions, never happy with his job and consistently out of money. Mary Steenburgen plays Melvin’s long-suffering wife, who escapes more than once but returns out of love for Melvin and, more importantly, their young daughter; she finally gives up when her last-ditch effort to get the family into the black is squandered by her husband. Steenburgen’s performance is the highlight of the picture; she is seemingly the recepient of constant aggression, but she emerges as a strong-willed person and the source of some of the most knowing comedy in the film.

The movie is defined in many ways by three sublime moments that involve music (brilliantly utilized throughout the production). One is placed quite abnormally at the beginning, with Howard Hughes in the car, singing a song with Melvin after a long series of refusals to do so. The second is a Steenburgen tap-dance for a talent show with the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” blaring in its blissful obviousness. The third is Melvin’s real shining moment, beyond the attention he receives and the acceptance he finds with his new wife (portrayed by Pamela Reed); at an office party, he performs a song he wrote specifically to piss off his employer who eggs him on at first then leaves, humiliated, when the crowd turns against him. The ultimate American fantasy, perhaps, now as then. And that may apply to the entire film, for who knows if its central plot point was the truth or a Dummar fib? (According to Wikipedia, new evidence suggests that his story was true.)

It’s easy to see from this film why Demme’s career ended up on the fast-track. It has the earmarks of his later work, the landscapes and the subjective tension, but comes across equally strongly as a nod toward the stark realism of Hal Ashby. But to be fair, Demme gets a fair amount of assistance from the very good-looking and cinematic country we happen to live in. This film is so dominated by the location photography that it’s hard not to mark it down as a big part of what makes it so endearing. And that’s allowed, right?

One can’t know how much one’s emotional reaction to a movie is completely specific to oneself. My dad was at times a lot like Melvin, my mom a lot like Lynda. The early years of their marriage in the ’70s were fraught by economic anxiety and were also by all accounts very happy times. They went nuts over small, goofy things that wouldn’t seem to matter that much years later. Dad, like Melvin, had enthusiasms that would permeate everything even though he couldn’t always stay as optimistic as he’d have liked. And I remember the small joys and the big disappointments as outlined in this film. I remember the family history of the quick, cheap wedding; hotel rooms and sandwiches, boats and cars that were bought but that couldn’t be paid for. Tap-dancing on TV as some big life-changing thing, a thing that Demme depicts without mocking or talking down to the people he’s showing us. That’s an act of immense compassion that should not be as rare as it is.

This is all too personal to me really; I feel so close to this film that to praise it as much as I want to seems almost unfair. So let me give the floor to a really poetic piece about Melvin and Howard by Fernando Croce, a better writer with more sophisticated tastes than me, who runs CinePassion: The landscape here is one of flaky appetites and ebullient impermanence: tract homes and strip clubs, families breaking up and getting back together and breaking up again, thrifty wedding chapels followed by slot-machines and roulettes. Shooting for the “Milkman of the Month” award or stumbling around a roadside gas station, the songwriter muddles through, “broke but not poor.” His wife (Mary Steenburgen) tap-dances on a raucous game show for a fat paycheck that’s promptly turned into a fancy boat stranded on the front lawn. A mogul’s will dropped on his desk adduces a fine note from Preston Sturges — could that grouch in the pick-up truck actually have been Hughes? Shambling yet delicate, Demme’s screwball tall tale gazes at TV contests and novelty ballads and sees not derisive kitsch but the warm connective tissue of human yearning. Bang on.

[Includes material from a review posted in 2007.]

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