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Thursday, December 24, 2015

MELVIN AND HOWARD (1980)

Something precious was lost when director Jonathan Demme gave up his quirky early dramedies for mainstream fare, documentaries (musical & political) & misbegotten remakes. In CITIZENS BAND/HANDLE WITH CARE/’77 and here, he tackled outlier Americana with the instincts of a fabulist raised on a film diet of Jean Renoir & Preston Sturges. M&H is the classic of the pair, a great American film on a great American hard-luck tale, the possibly true story of how one of life’s sweet failures hit the jackpot by giving a lift to an injured man out in the desert, a guy who looks like a bum, but claims to be Howard Hughes. Years later, after a couple of marriages, multiple kids, many dead-end jobs and uncrumbling optimism, Melvin Dummar (an irreplaceable Paul Le Mat) is named in Hughes’ mysterious handwritten will. But who’ll believe it? The film, beautifully built & voiced by Bo Goldman, does, implicitly. You will, too. But it hardly matters, which is part of Demme’s magic touch here. It’s all about the journey, and even more about total acceptance of all the characters we meet along the way with one pitch perfect perf capping another. And no real villains till we hit the courts. (Even the hard-nosed asshole of a boss Melvin works for as a milkman gets a decent treatment.) But top marks must go to Jason Robards’ Howard Hughes, who puts his character over in just a couple of reels, making the old creep touching, sympathetic & downright tuneful. The film remains a small miracle even if Universal's DVD dulls Tak Fujimoto’s pristine cinematography.

DOUBLE-BILL: *Demme’s follow up, SWING SHIFT/’84, was re-edited into something no one wanted to claim as their own. Supposedly, a Director’s Cut (or the materials for one) exists. But even as is, it’s possible to see the outline of a worthy early Demme.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Did music rights keep M&H unavailable for a time? If so, it was worth the wait just to see Melvin’s first wife (Mary Steenburgen) use The Rolling Stones’ SATISFACTION for her tv game show tap dance routine.

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