Review: Melvin and Howard (1980)

Melvin and Howard


Jonathan Demme
Bo Goldman
95 min.
Jason Robards, Paul Le Mat, Elizabeth Cheshire, Mary Steenburgen, Chip Taylor, Melvin E. Dummar, Michael J. Pollard, Denise Galik, Gloria Grahame, Pamela Reed, Dabney COleman
MPAA Rating

Buy on DVD


After the death of Howard Hughes, who left no known will, a hapless, impoverished father’s brief encounter with the eccentric recluse leads to the potential for fame and fortune, if he can prove it’s real.

Of course, most of these plot details come out late in the film after an hour of generally pointless narrative. Paul Le Mat, whose never had a fame-filled career, stars as titular Melvin who picks up the badly-injured Hughes in the desert after stopping to relieve himself. He doesn’t believe the reclusive millionaire is who he says he is and treats him as he would any random stranger he picked up on the side of the road, going so far as to force him to sing a corny Christmas song he wrote the lyrics for. After this 15-minute introduction, the film drifts off into standard slice-of-life territory as we watch Melvin slowly screw up his life with poor decisions and idiotic actions. His wife (Mary Steenburgen) runs away with his daughter who ends up going back to him, and they divorce. Then, after several encounters with his wife in strip clubs and bars, they eventually get back together again and re-marry. This time, they win success and a small trove of money on a Let’s Make a Deal-like game show which leads to overspend and his wife leaves him for the last time. He then marries someone from work, they move away to purchase a small gas station and only then, what feels like two hours later, we get the infamous will.

It’s a clunky film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be about. Melvin isn’t a very likable character. You don’t care if he wins or loses. He’s not a very interesting person and his bad choices range between terrible to unimportant, but each one is given an arbitrary amount of detail. By the time the will enters play, you’ve stopped caring about this schlub and hope that the film will eventually have a reason for being, an outcome which is never realized. The performances are about the only laudable aspect of the film with both Jason Robards and Mary Steenburgen providing some measurable tenacity. Robards does extremely well with the Hughes character, creating an interesting, zany character that isn’t unnecessarily so. Steenburgen is fun in her few scenes and you actually hope for her success after being married to a borderline jerk like Melvin.

I read a number of comments about the film from the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert that called the film lyrical. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what they were talking about. It drifts aimlessly and almost feels like two different and distinct films were trying to get out, but with neither emerging successfully. Was this a product of the time. An exciting evocation of an era? Or was it simply a film that ends up aging poorly as a result of changing societal priorities? I would probably go with the latter over the former.
Review Written
August 23, 2010

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