MELVIN AND HOWARD (R) -- At the AMC Academy, K-B Baronet West, K-B Crystal City, K-B Silver, K-B Studio, NTI Landover, NTI Tysons Cinema, Old Town, Roth's Parkway, Showcase Mercado, West End Circle.

Can you help loving a man who says such things as "Honey, they didn't burn down Rome in one day -- you got to keep plugging away"?

This is a sample of the wisdom of an inspired personification of American kitsch named Melvin, whose ambition in life is to be Milkman of the Month. It is the contention of "melvin and Howard" that not even that notorious misanthrope, Howard Hughes, in his eccentric old age, could have been immune to such charm.

The prize-winning script by Bo Goldman was inspired by a curious document, allegedly the only will left by the late tycoon, in which one Melvin Dummar was left $156 million for once having given Hughes a lift. This "Mormon will" was eventually discredited in court, but the film takes the position that it was nevertheless valid.

This is demonstrated by showing the ride, in which Hughes, eerily played by Jason Robards, becomes intrigued in spite of himself by this oddity from the other end of the financial scale. The picture presumes that we come to it knowing the extraordinary lengths of Hughes' dark attempt to reshape the world around him to fit his requirements, and present Melvin -- to Hughes as well as the audience -- as a person who doesn't fit the requirements of the world but cheerfully keeps trying and failing to sqeeze himself into its patterns of success.

This brief, strange meeting is on one end of the film, and on the other end are Melvin's experiences of envy and fame as the will is being contested -- an unplesant conspicuousness that Hughes presumably also knew something about.

The bulk of the film is, however, simply a portrait of Melvin -- Melvin the optimistic loser, as played with cherubic goodness by Paul Le Mat. The Hughes incident is about the only one in his life on which Melvin does not pin illogical hopes. He writes awful songs, to one of which he subjects the unfortunate Huges. He coaches his wife, another lovable innocent, played by Mary Steenburgen, to enter a television contest, where she wins $10,000 and prizes, but then he fritters it into repossessable goods, a habit which twice loses him this wife. A second appealing wife, played by Pamela Reed, brings a gas station as a dowry, but a new highway is built that bypasses it.

Sisyphean, the scriptwriter called these struggles. Milkman of the Month is the only attempt at which Melvin does succeed -- and then he gets the honor but not the money from it.

But all this is compensated, in this cleverly designed production, directed by Jonathan Demme, by quantities of enthusiasm and energy. It is not only Melvin and his family, but America, shining through all the pop culture, that comes through as something that could warm the most crotchety heart.