Dir. Bob Rafelson. Starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn
Jason (Dern) and David (Nicholson) are walking on the boardwalk when they come across a marching band with its color guard. Their banner states that they are from Mainland High School in Linwood, New Jersey, and they march on for a few moments, Jason coolly and mockingly dancing as he passes them, until the command is given to stop. They scatter to all parts of the boardwalk. The old, decrepit Lucy the Elephant is visible in the background now and again. David leaves the radio station in the wee hours and passes a framed picture bearing the now infamous advertisement: “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” Many of the best moments of Rocky meet the sunrise in the grime of ’70s South Philly; Laszlo Kovacs seems to have the same kind of grit in his camera, only four years earlier, for The King of Marvin Gardens. In quiet ways the filmmakers just knows where they are, and uses that knowledge as a way to center a somewhat aimless picture. Mainland High School, Lucy, the ad: not one of those is the important part of its scene. If it highlights any part of its setting with special gusto, it’s the Atlantic City Convention Hall, which is resoundingly huge, operatically scaled, and inhabited by a few rowdies playacting Miss America. The movie sees in Atlantic City a portrait of decay, or at least of less-than, and tosses spectacular oddness on top. Jason and David are on horses for a minute: why? Sally (Burstyn) has what appears to be a nervous breakdown as Jason begins to leave her behind in favor of her stepdaughter, Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). (None of this prevents this freaky little menage from going to dinner arm-in-arm, though.) Nothing compares to Jason’s ludicrous sales pitch: a little Hawaiian island, totally uninhabited, would be a great spot to put a casino. And David can get in on the ground floor. Atlantic City has just enough fantasy in it to give credence to the characters’ lunacy, but its drab and inglorious decline should have sufficed as a hint to its principals.
Dern and Nicholson are, famously, playing the wrong brothers. By rights, the manic half-crazed womanizing Jason should be Nicholson, and the sullen sour-faced introspecting David should be Dern. As much as I wanted the reverse casting to bear fruit, it comes out a little hollow compared to what it might have been. (These are also two of my favorite figures, period, of the New Hollywood, and so it hurts me to criticize them too much.) I like how Dern brings a nasal pleading into his pitches, making Jason’s exuberance the drop in pressure before he collapses into some sadsack failure. And Nicholson maybe overdoes a little twitch in his nose which is just weird enough to remind us of the great energy that he’s capable of, although in that sense it is effective. I also think that there’s something to be said for matching actors to the setting, for Nicholson as a con man would have overwhelmed the dying boardwalk and hotels and lobster restaurants and all the rest; cast the way the movie is, the setting is the star and the people are ants with grandiose plans and a taste for disappointment.
For a while I was afraid that the movie was really in something of a no-win scenario with these actors, or perhaps it needs someone more talented with actors than Bob Rafelson at the helm. Yet one could hardly hope for better in this time and place, and it leads us to the conclusion that the movie’s plot is just weak. The King of Marvin Gardens is missing an engaging story. We wait too long for the kind of kinetic moment that jolts us memorably, and instead we shuffle along, like David, from anticlimax to anticlimax. In a movie which puts failure at its heart, we don’t see people fail enough; we watch them in the early stages of self-immolation, but the gasoline they pour over themselves could just as well be water. For that reason (and others!) the movie’s final scenes whiff. When Sally shoots Jason, it feels suspiciously like Chekhov’s gun taken to its literal conclusion, like the filmmakers had no idea how to end the picture in less than two hours. The King of Marvin Gardens makes hay from impotence, from talking a bigger game than one can back up. It’s weird that the film turns to a secondary character to just off a primary one, and watching Jason get blown away is deeply unsatisfying. Harry Lime’s death is far more satisfying and far more troubling than Jason Staebler’s because Harry is more of both than Jason. When the boys go up in a ride that lets them see all of Atlantic City, it’s hard not to see Holly and Harry in the Riesenrad. One doesn’t blame The King of Marvin Gardens for not being The Third Man, but one wishes that the scene where David muses about banning saltwater taffy and deporting litterers had an ounce of “Would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money?” in it.
For all the other structural flaws in the movie, the most pressing question for me is: “What in the Sam Hill does The King of Marvin Gardens think women are?” There’s some depth to David, who, in the movie’s first and best scene, tells a story, partly fictional and partly true, about a dramatic night eating fish with his brother and grandfather. Jason seems to have glimpses of self-awareness in short bursts, as when he effaces the prison stay he’s called on David to pick him up for. But there’s no such depth, hidden or exposed, in Sally and Jessica. Robinson appears to have more in her than Jessica requires, which is “not very much.” Robinson is funny, though, as evidenced from her tap routine complete with vapid smile, or from the way she says she’d like to tell David she’s not in on Jason’s con man life. She’s not quite as effective as, say, Diane Keaton would have been, but there’s more than enough there to find a promising actress. Alas, there’s no way to know how much further her acting could go. She died at 24 before she ever made another movie, and this one presents her solely as a sexual prize for whichever brother can claim her first. Jason more or less offers her up to David, though David never takes the necessary steps to woo her, and in the end she replaces her stepmother as Jason’s main squeeze. There are many portraits of womanhood which present a person basically up for grabs, and while Jessica is likable she is not exceptional. Burstyn, on the other hand, is playing someone who is basically unhinged from the word go. Jason has arranged a band (such as it is) to play “By the Beautiful Sea” as he gets off the train, and Sally is there to collect them, conduct them, and cut them off. As Jason’s attentions meander to Jessica, Sally begins to lose her grip. She meaningfully puts Jessica’s crown on as she wins the Miss America pageant that the four of them put on, described as “last year’s winner” by David. She throws her clothes onto a bonfire but buries her favorite cosmetics until, one day, they shall meet again. She then cuts off most of her hair, throwing it onto the fire. Combined with some Shelley Winters-esque whining and the murder which caps the film, one is a little embarrassed for Burstyn, who is a better actor than this. Where Five Easy Pieces had divided women into “the ones Bobby can bang and the ones he can’t,” The King of Marvin Gardens somehow finds an even less interesting way to look at its women characters: the ones who, rejected by Jason, have gone positively batty with middle age, and the ones who would presumably suffer the same fate.