The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.   

USA, 1972, .   Story by Bob Rafelson, , Screenplay by Jacob Brackman.  Cinematography by Produced by Bob Rafelson.  Production Design by Costume Design by . Film Editing by

Jack Nicholson plays a Philadelphia radio host whose sober programs have him quietly intoning tales of his life that explain his depressive pathology. His father informs him that his brother (Bruce Dern) has called and wants him to join him in Atlantic City, which he does, arriving in the seaside town and finding him in jail. Becoming part of Dern’s little gang after springing him out of the clink, Nicholson joins former beauty queen girlfriend Ellen Burstyn and her stepdaughter Julia Anne Robinson and follows his brother as he attempts to pull off a real estate deal that Nicholson already knows is a scam. Rather than focusing on this aspect of the plot as some kind of heist narrative or thriller, Bob Rafelson instead investigates the broken dreams of the individual American male, emphasizing strange sequences in large, vacant spaces and peering into the cracks in the boardwalk of the town when it’s not tourist season and its many attractions are taken over by a ghostly emptiness. Burstyn, whose character’s disappointments provoke an emotional catharsis in the worst possible way, turns in electrifying support in a role that really shows her off at her most eccentric, while Dern and Nicholson have a low-burn, easy chemistry together as the opposite sides of a familial dysfunction in action. It’s a strange movie that won’t work for everybody, it’s dark and angry and leaves a bad feeling in your stomach at the end, but its obscure plot does a better job of describing the country at its most jaded than the more conventional investigations of life after counterculture released at this time (John G. Avildsen’s films Joe and Save The Tiger come to mind, both of which have an element of lecturing which dampens their effect and which this one avoids).

The Criterion Collection:  #550

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