When I look at a film like this, I see America. This is what a lot of those 'Working' people that politicians tend to smugly refer to them in the abstract are like, just struggling, trying to get by, a lot of Melvin Dunbarrs out there. And this is an interesting 'nobody/loser' kind of guy, since he picks up an old bum one night who claims to be Howard Hughes, and then doesn't think much of it... until years later when, after the old codger dies, leaves 158 million dollars to him as one of his beneficiaries. Finally some luck floats Poor Melvin's way, but at what cost?
The movie actually should be called 'Melvin', but then how does one market that without people thinking it's about a nerd or something? And yet the 'Howard' of the title is a little of a misnomer - rather, Jason Robards playing the famous aviator and mogul, is there only for the introduction at the start, and then (spoiler) isn't really seen again. It's the story of this father and husband who is decent at the former but not so much at the latter, as his wife leaves him for being such a 'loser', but then over the course of the film, after being divorced, comes back to him to remarry and have more kids and try to get by a little better.
|And look how he makes his bacon with those cheap sunglasses!|
There is solid, entertaining dramedic attention paid to the relationship they have (until it just gets too much and the split is irrevocable), but it's Melvin's tale that shines through and gives Demme so much to work with. Melvin *should* be a jerk, but so much keeps getting thrown in his way, either by himself with his unfortunate purchases, or how he's treated by a dickhead boss at his work as a milk-man (and the bigger question - will he be "Milkman of the Month"?) The strategy in Bo Goldman's Oscar winning script is spot-on and reveals itself gradually: there is a story here, but it's majorly a character piece, so that by the time the 'twist' arrives about Hughes' fortune and the controversy (based on fact) about this will, we've become invested with this likeable lunk-head who is a lot of things but not a liar.
It's a wonderful odd-ball duck of a movie, led along by some wacky country music that should work but does, and by Le Mat who finds the correct way to play this character and sticks with it (same with Steenburgen, who has the kind of spirit to make getting totally naked while quitting a stripping job very funny and kind of invigorating for the human spirit). There's real heart here too, so that even when certain scenes are imbued with quirk (i.e. the Vegas wedding scene where everybody kisses everybody else, anonymous witnesses included!) that it feels real in some unmentionable way. Oh, and Robards is great fun for the few minutes he's on screen, especially when he comes back near the very end. It's an unlikely and truthful "feel-good" movie.