Entertainment Magazine

The King of Marvin Gardens

Posted on the 12 February 2015 by Christopher Saunders
The King of Marvin GardensBob Rafelson followed Five Easy Pieces (1970) with this high-toned oddity. The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is a fascinating miscalculation, its overbaked flourishes more annoying than artful.
Radio host David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) receives a phone call from his estranged brother Jason (Bruce Dern). Jason invites David to Atlantic City, where he's attracting investors for a Hawaiian resort. Jason runs afoul of cops, crime boss Lewis (Scatman Crothers) and his catty assistants (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson). Fighting his own depression and distrust, David nonethless gets drawn into Jason's scheming.
Rafelson crams Marvin Gardens with vivid imagery, using Atlantic City's decaying boardwalk to great effect. We're given surreal scenes like David and Jason on horseback, a Miss American pageant in an abandoned amphitheater or David's epigrammatic chat with a gangster. These images are too self-contained to amount to anything. When the symbolism isn't obtuse it's crushingly obvious, like David finding a pistol in a drawer full of dildos. It's like a film student copying Luis Bunuel while missing the point.
Rafelson and cowriter Jacob Brackman hinge their drama on the leads' relationship: David the repressed brooder, Jason the uninhibited troublemaker. Their earnest scenes of brotherly bonding and squabbling work marvelously. Too often however, they talk past each other in overripe monologues: indeed, David frequently speaks into a tape recorder, then playing it back endlessly. Sally and Jessica are mother and stepdaughter yet both talk like spoiled six year olds, babbling nonsense while competing for Jason's love.
Presumably Marvin Gardens wants to be a wry commentary on the American Dream, its images of decay and neurotic monologues exposing modern hollowness. But these strands don't connect so much as crash into each other. Distancing yourself from viewers works if you're Brecht or Godard, willing to commit wholeheartedly to the exercise. But Rafelson seems torn between alienating viewers and investing them in his characters, and the mix just doesn't work.
Jack Nicholson seems curiously distant: for all his meaty monologues and heartfelt pinings he's too detached, from costars and viewers alike. Bruce Dern's manic greasiness proves more compelling: this ranks among his best performances. Ellen Burstyn channels energy into her misbegotten role, while Julia Anne Robinson is hopelessly stiff. Scatman Crothers's charming kingpin nearly steals the show: he's straightforward in a way his weirdo costars can't match.
The King of Marvin Gardens reeks of self-conscious pretension. Rafelson pitches plot, imagery and characters at such an abstract level they never connect, an alienation exercise without a worthwhile endgame.

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