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MELVIN AND HOWARD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Paul LeMat, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen
Director:  Jonathan Demme
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  Commentary, Trailer, Talent Bios
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  October 12, 1999

Film **

I donít foresee anybody ever trying to make a movie about my life.  If they did, I doubt anyone would actually pay to see itÖin fact, Iíd advise you to save your money.  Itís not that interesting.  Which is fine with me.  I think most of us live how we live, and touch who we touch, and try to make the most of what we have.  If the end results are not exciting enough for Hollywood, so be it.

Melvin Dummar was just an ordinary person like you or me.  He struggled with bills and debts, dead end jobs, relationship troubles, and he dreamed of one day having that wonderful ship come in.  If it werenít for the fact that he claimed to have picked up a ragged Howard Hughes one night in the desert, and that a will that was delivered to him named him as a beneficiary to the eccentric billionaireís fortune, Iíd guess none of us would have ever heard of him.

It was that controversial bit of information that made Melvin Dummar a kind of pseudo-celebrity, which is why itís strange to me that the film, Melvin and Howard, pays attention to it only a few minutes at the beginning and at the end of the film.  In between is just the story of Melvin.  And I donít know what to make of it.  Melvinís 15 minutes of fame would have made an intriguing film.  This movie, instead, deals largely with all the other minutes of his life.

I know this film was one of the most acclaimed of the 80ís, and I can say that it boasts a good cast.  Iím just not sure what the point of making the movie was.  The controversy over the will was quite a big deal in its day, with a big legal battle and extensive press coverage to boot.  Itís still an unresolved issueÖthe will that Melvin produced was the only Howard Hughes will ever to surface, and the courts discredited it, and so Melvin never saw a penny of the $156 million that he was supposedly entitled to.  Itís definitely a most interesting and intriguing story.

Which is why I was left scratching my head as to why the film blew right through it in the final moments, electing instead to tell the life story of a man whoís life never would have been the basis of a film otherwise.  Melvin (LeMat) picks up a ragged old man (Robards) and drives him to Vegas, then the rest of the story is all Melvin.  We see his bike being repossessed.  He loses his wife (Steenburgen, in an Oscar winning role) not once, but twice.  The highlight of his world is making milkman of the month at his job, which wins him a new TV set.

Melvin is called a loser in the filmÖI donít call him that.  Heís simply a man with a lot of bad luck, and not enough common sense to handle what little good luck comes his way.  When his wife wins big on a local game show, he doesnít handle the money wisely.  He buys an expensive car and boat, only to have them gone by the next reel of the film, along with his wife.  He eventually buys into a gas station in Utah, only to find himself in a situation where he has no gas to pump because he canít afford to pay for it.  All of this is the heart of the movie.

Then in the final stretch, the will is dropped on his desk, we see him asked a few questions in court, and he walks away declaring that he knows heíll never see a penny of it, which is confirmed in the movieís printed epilogue.

So the question I kept asking myself is, why was the movie made?  Why would the most interesting parts of Melvinís story be only casually touched upon so we can watch him struggle with day to day life, deliver milk, and try to keep from getting one more possession taken away?  Would you make a film about Stanley Kubrick and spend an hour and a half dealing with his career as a free lance photographer in the late 40ís and early 50ís, only to say in the last few minutes, ďoh, and then he went on to make 12 of the most influential and acclaimed films in movie historyĒ? 

Try as I may, I canít find a point.  And I donít mean any disrespect to Melvin Dummarís life in saying so.  Like I mentioned, my lifeís not worth making a movie about either, and I have nothing like his encounter with Howard Hughes to make anyone even consider doing so.

Video **

Anchor Bay delivers an anamorphically enhanced disc that unfortunately is not very good.  Like many 80ís films, this one definitely shows itís age.  Itís a bit drab looking, and darker scenes (which include virtually the entire beginning with Melvin and Howard together) are murky with very poor definition. 

Audio *1/2

As for the soundtrack, some mono mixes sound livelier than others, and this one falls flat, though clarity is not a problem.  It just has no dynamic range at all.

Features ***

The disc includes a Jonathan Demme commentary, a trailer, and cast bios for the three stars.

Summary:

Some films you get, others you donít.  I guess itís fair to say Iím in the minority as far as critics go by not caring for Melvin and Howard.  For me, the gap between the film it could have been and the film it actually is, is just too great.