Friday, March 6, 2020

Classic Movie Review: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) 
Directed by: Bob Rafelson.
Written by: Jacob Brackman and Bob Rafelson.
Starring: Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), Scatman Crothers (Lewis), Charles LaVine (Grandfather), Arnold Williams (Rosko), John P. Ryan (Surtees), Sully Boyar (Lebowitz), Josh Mostel (Frank). 
For his follow-up to Five Easy Pieces, director Bob Rafelson once again teamed up with Jack Nicholson to make the very odd The King of Marvin Gardens. This time, he moved to the other end of the country – from California and Washington state, to Atlantic City – but once again he finds emptiness, dreamers daring to dream, but with no hope of it coming true. This is the dark side of the American Dream – to the America where you can be whatever you want to be in theory, although it never works out in practice.
Nicholson plays David in the film – and uncharacteristically for Nicholson, he is an introvert – someone who never flashes that famous smile, or show off that famous charm. Rafelson initially didn’t want Nicholson for the role – thinking he was wrong for the part – but Nicholson convinced him, and was right. The film opens with what may be the film’s best scene – a long take of Nicholson telling a story from his childhood, about he, his brother and his grandfather – a story we will only know in time is not entirely true. David is a late night radio host – a storyteller, telling these long, depressing stories in a subdued voice. The brother he mentions in the story – and who he hasn’t seen in two years, Jason (Bruce Dern) calls him up and tells him to leave Philadelphia for Atlantic City – he’s got an idea for them that cannot fail. Despite the fact that David knows this isn’t true, he doesn’t hesitate – he goes to Atlantic City.
There really isn’t much going on there though. This is the winter, the off-season for Atlantic City, and this is a few years before they legalized gambling. It was the inspiration for Monopoly though – and Rafelson references the game throughout, moving through locations like squares on a board. He plays with the geography as well – sometimes within the same scene (the camera looks one way and the background is miles away from what the camera sees when it looks the other way). Jason’s get rich quick scheme involves hotels in Hawaii – and he is sure he can make it all work, when he gets some Japanese businessmen to buy in. Until then though, Jason and David spend their days hanging out with two women – Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and her stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Ann Robinson) – both of whom are kind of Jason’s girlfriend, although he seems to be trying to bribe David into sticking around with Jessica.
Dern’s Jason is the opposite of Nicholson’s David – he is a bundle of energy; he never stops scheming or talking. He is the driving force behind everything in the movie – and we get the sense that he’s got scams going that we don’t even know about – he certainly has some going on with Lewis (Scatman Crothers), who gives David a far different portrait of their relationship than Jason does. This is a classic kind of Dern performance – the kind he does better than just about anyone.
The film has more surreal touches that Five Easy Pieces – which had none. Odd scenes like Nicholson and Dern on the beach with horses, or the famous faked Miss America pageant, with Nicholson playing host, Robinson playing beauty queen, Burstyn on the organ, and Dern the crowd. It’s odd to see what is usually large, bustling pageantry, divorced from all of that – it’s empty and echoing, the characters play acting. It’s the only time in the film Nicholson smiles – and it echoes the final scene in the movie, which is a reminder of happier times for the brothers.
The two women in the movie are fascinating in their way as well. This was Burstyn coming off her first Oscar nominated role – and really her breakthrough in her late 30s in The Last Picture Show (1971), and the young Robinson’s only real film role (she would die, tragically, a couple years later). Burstyn is the older character, but in many ways she is much more immature. She is certainly more insecure – which is what leads to the scene late in the movie which is probably much more accurate a representation of how people end up shot than we normally see. For her youth, Jessica also has more perspective – and in her way, tries to push away David- she knows he isn’t right for whatever Jason is up to.
The King of Marvin Gardens was not the success Five Easy Pieces was when it was released in 1972 – many critics hated it, and it didn’t set the box office on fire either. But it has gradually become a cult film – for its weirdness, for its depiction of America, for the great performances at its core – by three people who would go onto to become some of the best actors of their generation, and a fourth who never got that chance. It’s a trickier film than Five Easy Pieces – and no, it is not as good. But it’s a great film in its own right as well.

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