My problem with Demme

There’s something about me that is resistant to the early work of Jonathan Demme.  Last year I found myself decidedly not-blown-away by his screwball caper Something Wild (1986), which has since been canonized by the Criterion Collection; now I’m trying to sort out my feelings about his Preston-Sturges-esque Melvin and Howard (1980), which elicited rave reviews from Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael (who compared Demme to Jean Renoir).  It’s definitely a richer and more sincere film than Something Wild, which struck me as empty and gratingly disingenuous, as if it didn’t really believe in or care about its broad, cartoonish characters and plot yet insisted on asking us to take them seriously.  Melvin and Howard doesn’t suffer as much from that problem; its characters are eccentric but more deeply felt, and not so exaggerated; they’re just the right amount off-beat.  Our main character, Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat), is the kind of good-hearted but impractical blue-collar guy you’re likely to recognize anywhere in America—the kind of person who’s likely to give you his last quarter even though his truck is facing repossession. 

The rather meandering plot of the film follows Melvin in the years between his giving a lift to a bum (Jason Robards) in the desert outside of Las Vegas and the revelation that the bum may have been Howard Hughes, and that he may have left Melvin over a million dollars in his will.  The film opens with Melvin and Robards sharing a long, surreal drive through the desert in the dead of night, over the course of which they make small talk and sing songs (Howard grudgingly, Melvin with the innocent joy of a kid).  It ends with Hughes’ death eight years later and the much-publicized trials surrounding the legitimacy of his will.  The middle of the movie, however, which dramatizes Melvin’s various ups and downs in between (his on-again, off-again relationship with his wife; a series of working-class jobs; etc.) feels aimless, unfocused.  Demme has a keen eye for the kitschy details of lower-middle-class American life: cheap knick-knacks, pop psychology, television game shows (see screengrab).  He also has a good ear for the way working-class people like Melvin and his wife talk and behave.  As the wife, Mary Steenburgen is wonderfully off-putting—somehow dizzy and business-minded at the same time.  The game show sequence in particular (which inspired the “What Do Kids Know?” show in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia [1999]) is a masterful set piece that captures the zany thrill of bad TV.  But, frustratingly, those details never add up to me; they remain well-observed pieces of a story that never quite gels.  As in Something Wild, it feels like Demme succeeds in capturing the weird texture of middle America at the expense of narrative coherence.  Things just sort of happen in his early films, and while that may be the point of Melvin and Howard—that American success stories are built on randomness and chance—it makes for somewhat limp films.    

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