Tuesday 16 December 2014

Movie Review: The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972)

A low-key character study set in Atlantic City, The King Of Marvin Gardens celebrates early 1970s minimalism but toils to create drama around a small group of dreamers and drifters.

David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) works as an overnight talk show host at a Philadelphia radio station, entertaining his audience with long-winded fictional stories. David lives in a large house with his grandfather and seems to be sleepwalking through life in a state of minor depression.  At the request of his brother Jason (Bruce Dern), David travels to Atlantic City, where he meets Jason's girlfriends Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson).

Jason is a perpetual dreamer, always on the lookout for the next big deal, and is involved with some unsavoury Atlantic City criminal types including crime boss Lewis (Scatman Crothers). Jason's latest vague scheme is to build a casino resort on a tiny island off the coast of Hawaii, and he wants David's support. The naïve Sally and Jessica dream of joining Jason in Hawaii, while engaging in their own competition to be Jason's prime play mate. With Jason full of ambition but utterly lacking in focus or ability, David has to decide how close he wants to be to his brother, while Sally and Jessica head towards a resolution of their own.

Directed by Bob Rafelson in one of six collaborations with Nicholson, The King Of Marvin Gardens zooms in on four people and stays there. With a rudimentary story that never intends to go anywhere, the script (by Jacob Brackman and Rafelson) takes its time to delve into the shifting emotions of David, Jason, Sally and Jessica. While the foursome are interesting enough, it is an undoubted struggle to sustain attention even for the shortish 104 minute running time.

It is clear early that David is carrying emotional wounds and is repressing his life to guard against any shocks. It's a different role for Nicholson, allowing him to stay deep within himself and express annoyance with minimal expressions and gestures. Jason is equally easy to categorize: a small time hustler who will always end up on the losing side of any deal. Jason is introduced in a jail cell, and he never does anything to suggest that his half-baked schemes will help him find better outcomes. Bruce Dern grabs the role and runs with it, making a splash but falling short of finding a glimmer of pathos that may have helped the film glow. Neither David nor Jason undergo much of a transformation as the two brothers bump up against each other and find little willingness for change.

Sally and Jessica are both potentially compelling characters, but the film only offers piecemeal hints about their backstory, and they are never rounded out into people. It's a wasted opportunity to expand the film into a wider circle. The movie is Julia Ann Robinson's one major film credit before her tragic death in 1975.

To make up for the relative leanness of the material, The King Of Marvin Gardens boasts plenty of style. The opening scene is a classic close up of a Nicholson monologue in dark surroundings, Rafelson revealing the setting and context ever so slowly and with a large dose of cleverness. The rest of the film is full of compelling Atlantic City scenery from the early 1970s, when old glories had well and truly faded and a thick sense of defeatism hung heavy over the boardwalk. Rafelson also takes several surreal side trips into dreamlike scenes that are fascinating in their non sequitur state. One such sequence features the foursome staging a simulated Miss America pageant, while other scenes suddenly transpose the characters to unusual settings on the beach.

The King Of Marvin Gardens is an adequate curiosity, never achieving regal status but presenting a worthwhile stroll in the company of conflicted brothers.

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