The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Rob Rafelson)
The dysfunctional nature of human beings has been one of the core themes to describe many of the BBS filmmography. From Head, Five Easy Pieces to A Safe Place, a lot of the people who inhabit these worlds have not been the most stable individuals, sometimes incapable of keeping their own two feat on the ground, other times experiencing significant turbulence when getting along with others. Their quirks and personalities simply keep on digging wedges between themselves and others. The concluding film in our outlook on late 60s and early 70s American independent cinema, The King of Marvin Gardens, is driven by much of the same ideas and, fittingly enough, is directed by the same fellow who brought audiences the first BBS film, Rob Rafelson.
King of Marvin Gardens tells the story of two brothers. One, David (Jack Nicholson), is a late night-early morning radio talk show host currently undergoing an emotional lull in his life. Sad, depressed, he shares semi-fictionalized stories about his childhood on the air which straddle the line between the comedic and the horrific. David currently lives with his father, who is quite old and sick. The second half of the brotherly duo is Jason (Bruce Dern), a front man for an African American mob, but now currently trying to make some serious cash by raising the value of some major (or, apparently major) property in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Jason is outgoing and very energetic, the ying to David's yang, but said positives are outweighed by the fact that he is, realistically, not the sharpest business nor exempt from defying the law. Case in point, the two brothers are reunited at the start of the film when Jason calls upon David to help get out of jail. Somehow the latter gets tight up in Jason's Atlantic City project, as are his brothers two female companions: Sally (Ellen Burstun), an ageing beauty, and Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), who evidently enough is be Sally's Miss America protégé.
Rob Rafelson is definitely a director who enjoys pushing the limits of conventional storytelling. He has a fondness for rich drama, but can be unpredictable when the time comes to transpose the story and character beats from the page to the screen. One need only consider Head for an indication of how off kilter Rafelson's style can be. The opposite of that style came with Five Easy Pieces, one of the most grounded movies discussed in the current marathon. With Marvin Gardens, the director keeps the film's tone and aesthetic qualities planted more firmly on the ground, finding a middle ground of sorts between the pacing and tone of Head and Pieces. That being said, perhaps because it strives for the best of both worlds, the end result is a film that is rarely as engaging as it should be. Fighting to offer viewers both a little bit of the quirky and cute all the while inserting some serious, dramatic moments, the clarity of the director's vision is compromised. The movie is never as real as it should be, making the moments of zaniness feel misplaced.
As for what works, that is easy enough to pinpoint. The actors Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern and Julia Anne Robinson, even though the latter has less screen time than the first two listed, are all excellent in their respective roles. The casting is clever, using the actors, especially Nicholson, against type. Both Easy Rider and Pieces showed that the actor could excel when playing dramatic and highly energized, charismatic roles. Marvin Gardens offers up a different sort of challenge in that Nicholson is far more subdued than he ever has been before and often has been since. This is a man engulfed in emotional pain, a depressive state which nullifies any possibilities of exuberance or witty charm many have come to expect from the legendary actor. In contrast, Bruce Dern is the excitable one, never one to shy away from proclaiming how bright his business plans are. He is loud, brash and even though the audience slowly begins to figure out that he is in over his head, the character keeps marching along to the sound of his own. The dichotomy found in many of their scenes together add a special comedic quality. The nature of their respective roles features an even deeper sense of dichotomy, one that supports the notion that they do in fact need one another despite what David may prefer to believe. David, fighting through his depression, is the realist of the two brothers. While Jason bounces up and down about his smart he is and how they are on the verge of making it big in Atlantic City, David occasionally questions the feasibility of his brother's methods, as well as the latter's competency level at pulling such a large operation off. On the flip side, there is Jason, who is willing to take risks, to stick his neck out for what his gut tells him should work. He dreams and is driven by a hunger to take chances on said dreams. He is also fun to be around with, provided one can handle his slightly obnoxious attitude that creeps up whenever someone doubts his businessman capacities. David needs Jason to rekindle some energy, just as Jason needs David to put things into perspective. The strongest element about the script and the performances is that each is already too deep into their individual moods to ever truly consider or understand what the other has to offer.
The specifics of where Marvin Gardens falters lies with the film's stabs at trying to be too precious and cute in its quirkier moments. A fake Miss American pageant involving only the four protagonists, the bizarre scene when Sally greets David at the train station early in the picture (a greeting which includes a small band playing music no less), a conversation with Japanese investors which evolves around the intelligence of dolphins, Sally's many, many outbursts which relate to her slowly declining beauty (in large part why Burstyn's performance is forgettable and one-note), the movie has plenty of moments which at first glance seem too desperate for a reaction from the viewer. As previously stated, there is a preciousness to many of these scenes which is too much at odds with everything else. Humour is arguably the most subjective element in film. What makes one laugh may bore another viewer to death. None of the aforementioned moments, or any of the others the article did not bother to reference, produced even a chuckle. Quirk is a remarkably difficult tone to juggle because it is not meant to everyone. It is supposed to be clever and funny, but not in a mainstream way. The Marvin Garden's quirk simply did not jell well enough with the rest of the picture.
The movie ends on an impressive note, with David learning, in the harshest way possible, that his plaguing inaction became, in large part at least, his brother's undoing. It is a powerful way to finish a story about two brothers who, despite being very different people, nearly came together while on a strange business venture, albeit one doomed to failure. It is unfortunate that The King of Marvin Gardens throws a lot of rubbish on screen between the opening and closing scenes. By no means is the film all bad, but the BBS Productions marathon unfortunately does not conclude with a bang.
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