The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

The antiquated architecture standing in the Atlantic City occupied by this film’s characters was long gone when I walked off the boardwalk nearly 40 years later to spread a departed family member’s ashes in the sea. Despite this difference, I can say with confidence that Atlantic City in the winter months is every bit as bleak and biting as it is in Bob Rafelson’s 1972 film, THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS. While the characters find that it’s a terrible time and place to hatch a real-estate scheme or get hired as an auctioneer, it proves more than adequate for bonfires and horsey rides.

During a broadcast into the wee hours, talk-radio personality David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) is urgently summoned to Atlantic City by his older brother, Jason (Bruce Dern). Without any further context, David leaves Philadelphia and arrives at the train station, only to be collected by his brother’s cheeky companion, Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and a clumsy welcoming band of drums and brass players. Trombone Shorty, they ain’t.

When the brothers first reunite, they do so with jail bars between them; imprisoned for reasons unknown, Jason is optimistic he’ll get out by sundown if David can track down a guy named Lewis. That doesn’t quite materialize, but Jason is cruising around the boardwalk on a motorized caddy in what seems like only hours later. He reveals a plan to secure real estate for a gambling enterprise on an obscure South Pacific island, and he wants David as a partner. Along for the venture are Sally and Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), a pretty lady as naive as she is fun-loving. Both women occupy points in an uneasy love triangle with Jason.

As the plan develops, it unravels at nearly the same rate. Certain events reveal Jason’s pattern of overselling. (Case in point: Jason may not be able to afford the room in a historic hotel he’d convinced Sally he owned). David can barely contain his unease about the scheme and it seems that simply being near his brother puts him on edge. Sally is losing both confidence and trust in Jason, and shifts an envious eye towards Jessica. Failure doesn’t adequately describe the worst possible outcome for this motley crew.

Despite their shared genetics, the differences between the Staebler brothers couldn’t be more stark. David is an introverted storyteller leading a dull life in a Philadelphia apartment he shares with their grandfather. Jason is a charismatic con artist and feverish dream-weaver with lofty aspirations. At a dinner following his release from jail, Jason sucks down brightly colored cocktails while rapping about stolen cars full of Swiss watches as David nurses a glass of milk. Rafelson leaves no stone unturned — be it visual, narrative, or in characterization — in illustrating this contrast, yet his efforts never feel try-hard, nor do moments feel unearned.

This is a character-driven film and as such, how you evaluate it depends a lot on how convinced you are by the on-screen relationships. Both Dern and Nicholson put forth measured performances of two complex characters existing in a state of vacillating stress due to their oppositional quirks. Burstyn is amazing as Jason’s slighted lover. The charismatic performances are great in isolation and the ensemble chemistry is even better, but the underlying dynamic between the brothers provides the narrative thrust and much of the tension in the film.

Lensed by legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, the film has a bounty of well-composed scenes with tight framing and offbeat arrangements. One of my favorites features Dern and Nicholson facing each other on horseback on the beach, with the animals barely stirring. Why? No idea, but it looks cool! Many of the exterior shots on and around the boardwalk have an overcast, dreary look that reflect a decaying environment, but there are timely and purposeful tweaks to the palette — a daytime bonfire scene which acts as a liberating cleanse for one character might be the brightest among them.

The film is book-ended by a pair of David’s on-air monologues which border on confessionals. I won’t spoil the content or moods of either, but the first one trails off with David describing he and his brother as “accomplices” before a phone call to his booth engineer abruptly interrupts the conclusion — the same call that prompts his trip to Atlantic City. Towards the end of the film, David delivers an equally engrossing monologue that transitions into a scene where the brothers’ grandfather projects an 8mm home movie on the apartment’s wall showing the two young boys building a sand castle at the beach, a fleeting creation eventually washed away with the tide.

This content was originally posted at The Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnite Cinema

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