Sunday, September 21, 2008

Melvin and Howard (1980) Review

The actual story the film is based on: In 1968, four years before reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes died, he was reported to have had an encounter with a good-natured blue collar worker, Howard Dummar. Dummar picked up Hughes when he was stranded on the side of a Las Vegas road and gave him a ride to Las Vegas. When Hughes died,he bequeathed money to Dummar as a reward for his good deed. Unfortunately, Hughes' estate and the Nevada courts found Hughes' story too unbelievable to be true and Dummar never got the money.

The movie itself is well-intentioned and it truly has interesting characters. An actor I've never heard of before in my life, Paul Le Mat, plays Dummar with an innocent "aw shucks" attitude that endears him to the audience and strengthens our opinion of him as the rightful heir. He lets himself get easily seduced by an older female customer when he's delivering milk and when the woman who turns out to be his second wife makes suggestive innuendo at him, he says in a flabbergasted tone "Bonnie, aren't you a Mormon girl?"

His first wife Linda, who was the focus of my attention on this film based on the fact that the only thing I knew about the film was that it was Mary Steenburgen's Academy-award winning role, was also an interesting character: underneath the guise of her provocative clothing and desire to be a dancer (be it exotic or tap), she's equally innocent and oblivious to the world around her.

Except for the one scene in which Bonnie seduces Howard, she's woefully underdeveloped and there's very little reason to be happy to see her and Howard at the end of the film together. The film wants us to feel that the tragedy that is hitting Howard is hitting Bonnie' as well, since she's his wife. Because of the way marriages were coming and going in Howard's life and the initial chemistry between Linda and Howard, I was kind of hoping that Bonnie was just a temporary road stop en route back to Linda. Never mind that in REAL LIFE, Howard and Linda didn't get back together, the story never made me see Bonnie as anything more than some impulsive farmgirl in need of a man. The chemistry or story arc between the two needed to be strengthened up front.

Another woefully underdeveloped relationship was that between Melvin and Howard which is what someone might get the impression the film is about, considering it's the title of the film. The story, or the most interesting part of it, was all about Melvin's inheritance of Howard's money, and that only came back in the last 20 minutes of the film as a sort of epilogue to the story of Melvin's unsuccessful marriage to Linda. Some reviews said that the story was about the myth American dream of the American dream unearthed as Melvin's story was a backwards version of Howard's story. To me, however, it seemed like there needed to be at least some allusion to Howard Hughes- a reminder that he was in the story in any capacity at all - between the first ten minutes and the last twenty.

While I understand the film is a classic, to me, the film never really knew what it was about: A man's failed on-again off-again marriage, an almost complete portrait of a man who would go on to become a footnote in history, or the story of a man's controversial claim to inheritance.

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