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The King of Marvin Gardens
Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Jacob Brackman (story by Bob Rafelson and Jacob Brackman)
Stars: Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers (Lewis), Charles LaVine (Grandfather), Arnold Williams (Rosko), John Ryan (Surtees), Sully Boyar (Lebowitz), Josh Mostel (Frank), William Pabst (Bidlack), Gary Goodrow (Nervous Man), Imogene Bliss (Magda), Ann Thomas (Bambi)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1972
Country: U.S.
The King of Marvin Gardens Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The King of Marvin Gardens The King of Marvin Gardens was director Bob Rafelson’s attempt to fully establish his artistic voice. His previous two films, the experimental Monkees trip Head (1968) and the alternately raucous and austere character study Five Easy Pieces (1970), had literally nothing in common aside from Rafelson’s involvement. Thus, Marvin Gardens was the film that would confirm the nature of his much desired auteur status: Would he continue to push into the avant-garde, or would he stick with serious psychological drama, a sort of American Antonioni? Rafelson chose the latter route, as Marvin Gardens is very much a piece with Five Easy Pieces, albeit only about half as good of a film.

The majority of the film is set during the off-season in Atlantic City, which at the time was near the end of a major economic slide that had begun after World War II (it was also pre-legalized gambling). David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) is a morose radio talk show host in Philadelphia who spins exaggerated stories of childhood trauma and loss to what we can only imagine is a tiny listening audience in the dead of night. He gets a call one morning from his older brother Jason (Bruce Dern), a flamboyant con man and aspiring real estate mogul with whom he has not spoken in several years. Jason, who is the randy trickster to David’s depressive philosopher, draws his brother out to Atlantic City, telling him that he has finally hit the jackpot with a scheme to buy a Hawaiian island and set up their own private resort. Jason has been living in a hotel room that he shares with two women, Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), the latter of whom looks like she is young enough to be the former’s daughter. The exact nature of this threesome’s relationship is tantalizingly vague, although there are definite seeds of competition and jealousy that seem primed for detonation at some point.

The screenplay, which is heavy on stagey interpersonal conflict, was penned by former Esquire film critic Jacob Brackman, who has also worked as a song lyricist and coproduced Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). To punch up the drama and make it more esoteric, Rafelson relies heavily on overt symbolism and visual metaphor, which provides plenty of food for thought for the literary-minded, but also tends to weigh down the narrative and make it feel more heavy-handed than it should (this is intensified by Rafelson’s decision to compose the film of all static shots, with one crucial exception at the end). Atlantic City itself, with its regal, but largely empty hotels, and vast boardwalks running alongside barren beaches and the frigid winter ocean, is an overpowering literal symbol of economic decay, which a man like Jason sees as nothing but opportunity for profit. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who also shot Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces) mixes intimate close-ups with wide shots that emphasize the smallness of the characters against the overwhelming environments in which they operate (every room in the film seems like an open maw into which they disappear, except for the hotel room, which feels claustrophobic). Regardless of the location, though, everything is gray, drab, and lifeless, which makes Jason’s constant optimism about his own chicanery seem all the more pathetic and doomed to tragedy. The fact that David buys into it--at least temporarily--is testament to Jason’s ability to drag others into his delusions.

This, of course, brings up one of the film’s sticking points, which is the casting. Rafelson, who had helped establish Nicholson as a great American actor in Five Easy Pieces, decided to cast against type by switching the leads at the last minute, giving Dern the showy, upbeat role and Nicholson the glum, introverted role. For his part, Dern turns in a great performance as a man who is always performing, to both himself and others. Jason is constantly talking and smiling, although when pushed he drops the façade and allows bursts of anger to shoot through. Dern captures Jason’s energy and makes it palpable; he must believe his own pipe dreams because they’re all he has, and we can see why Sally and Jessica buy into them. They’re as desperate as he is, a trait that Burstyn conveys with great power, although Robinson, an untested actress with no film experience, is clearly out of her league.

Nicholson, unfortunately, feels all wrong as David, not so much because he isn’t allowed to indulge in his “Jacksims,” but because he never manages to make the character anything more than a cipher. Bespectacled and buttoned down, he is a straight man to Dern’s character, absorbing his brother’s grandiosity with a skepticism that slowly erodes, but then is immediately built back up. The dynamic between the two characters is inherently intriguing, even if it’s familiar enough to border on cliché, but Rafelson never quite manages to make it work. As a result the film feels as sluggish and heavy as the cold winter air, and when tragedy strikes (as we know it must), it doesn’t hurt so much as it feels simply inevitable.

The King of Marvin Gardens Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
America Lost and Found: The BBS Story Criterion Collection Blu-Ray SetThe King of Marvin Gardens is availably exclusively via The Criterion Collection’s six-disc box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, which also includes Head (1968), Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Drive, He Said (1970), A Safe Place (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971).
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio English PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Selected-scene audio commentary by director Bob Rafelson
  • “Reflections of a Philosopher King,” video interview with Rafelson and actress Ellen Burstyn
  • “Afterthoughts,” video interview with Rafelson, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and actor Bruce Dern
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$124.95 (box set)
    Release DateNovember 16, 2010

    Criterion’s 4K high-definition transfer of The King of Marvin Gardens was taken from a new 35mm interpositive and supervised by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and it looks great. Framed in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it is a decidedly dark and dreary film visually, with an abundance of grays, browns, and other earth tones dominating the palette (especially in the exteriors), although there are a few splashes of color here and there. Black levels look solid throughout, with just the right amount of grain presence and plenty of shadow delineation. The lossless PCM monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic 3-track masters. The soundtrack is clean throughout, with good ambience that emphasizes subtle environmental sounds like the constantly howling wind.
    Criterion’s disc includes a selected-scene audio commentary by director Bob Rafelson on 15 of the 21 chapters, so it covers a good chunk of the film (about an hour or so). “Reflections of a Philosopher King” is a 15-minute video piece from 2009 in which Rafelson and, to a lesser extent, actress Ellen Burstyn discuss the film and its production. Rafelson also appears in “Afterthoughts,” an 11-minute retrospective featurette that he produced in 2002 that also includes interviews with Kovacs and actor Bruce Dern. Finally, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer.

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

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