The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)   Leave a comment

king of marvin gardens

David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) writes fiction loosely based on his life and reads it on his late night Philadelphia radio show. He lives with his elderly grandfather and goes through the motions of living. After an emergency call from his brother, Jason (Bruce Dern), David travels to Atlantic City and gets sucked into Jason’s world of lowlifes and get rich quick schemes.

The decaying boardwalk and scuzzy locales of Atlantic City in the 1970s serve as a perfect backdrop for the desperate wheeling and dealing Jason, his lady friend, Sally (Ellen Burstyn), and her daughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) have to do to get by. Jason works for local mobster, Scatman Crothers, but dreams of an empire of his own on a Hawaiian island. His charisma and charm have gotten him this far, but his bravado and lack of business acumen threaten to derail Jason’s plans. He’s also playing fast and loose with the two ladies in his life which almost never ends well.

As he did in Five Easy Pieces, director Bob Rafelson paints a sad picture of frustration, loneliness, and promise unfulfilled. Nicholson underplays his role as the smarter, sensible brother and Burstyn shows great range as the aging beauty queen who knows she’s past it, but tries to muddle through anyway. It’s Dern who transfixes though and you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s all energy and spontaneity and you want to believe in his dreams, realistic or not. For a film without a lot of action or even crackling dialogue, The King of Marvin Gardens held my interest if only to see what these odd characters would do and how these terrific actors would show it.

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