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One of the more extreme cases of the New Hollywood's downbeat 1970s realism, KING OF MARVIN GARDENS was the movie Bob Rafelson made after scoring big with Five Easy Pieces. Rafelson's running mate Jack Nicholson handles the main part in the movie, which is mostly set in the superbly desolate atmosphere of old, pre-Trump Atlantic City in the Winter. However, the movie (named after the Monopoly board game) fell far behind its predecessor in terms of success, and today a lot of people don't even know that it exists. In view of the similarities, an interesting question is why Marvin Gardens didn't communicate with the audience, while Five Easy Pieces did. The plot details have been changed so that we're on the East Coast instead of West Coast, the central relationship is brother and brother rather than father and son, and the protagonist is an introvert writer instead of an extrovert musician, but the fundamental Rafelson tone and pacing are easily recognizable.
Both movies are very much character studies with an eye for unusual settings, and in terms of plot one might argue that Marvin Gardens is actually superior, or at least clearer defined, than its predecessor. Nicholson helps his brother (Bruce Dern) with some legal trouble and in the process is brought on board for a holiday resort project on Hawaii, apparently with some local mafia involvement. The brothers and two girlfriends linger in Atlantic City while trying to lay their hands on a bundle of money that would help finance the Hawaii dream, and all the while their vastly different personalities are played off against one another. It's a fairly solid foundation for the type of quirky psychological drama that Rafelson had helped bring into vogue, and his direction skilfully offsets the storyline with incisive looks at the four main characters, both tracks leading forward in unpredictable starts and stops. Outside, the near-empty streets, boardwalks and hotels of old Atlantic City remain present to mirror the sense of homelessness, or lack of belonging in a deeper sense, that the protagonists project. The many exterior shots may stay in the viewer's memory longer than anything else in the movie, and represent a great documentary value in addition to the powerful atmosphere.
Most likely, what kept Marvin Gardens from becoming a classic resides in the handling of the two main characters. People loved, and still love, to watch Nicholson as the sarcastic yet obviously suffering Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces; the combination of strength and resignation was new at the time, and it obviously hit a spot with the post-psychedelic generation. Of course, it was also an extraordinary acting achievement by Nicholson, still today one of the highlights of his career, even if he was just three years out of biker movies and AIP hippie-ploitation flicks. Now, Nicholson does a very good job in Marvin Gardens too, and he accepts the challenge of bringing his first-ever introvert, low-key character to the screen. He would continue to insert this 'other', cast-against-type face of Jack into his acting repertoire now and then, as seen in The Border and About Schmidt, for example.
The problem with Nicholson's role is that it doesn't offer much space to communicate with the viewer, whether to evoke sympathy or as a psychological riddle. He simply is there, impenetrable and closed for others; on one hand very believable, on the other hand not enough engaging. This is a given risk when putting an introvert, stone-faced character at the center of the work, and the opening up of some type of channel for closer familiarization can easily look like a cheap psychological shot. Rafelson and Nicholson put their trust in the credibility of the character to connect with a mature audience, but in my view it isn't quite enough.
Opposite Nicholson's silent enigma we have Bruce Dern's extrovert, eternally optimistic screw-up, a part that could very well have been handled by Nicholson (this reversal of casting may indeed have been deliberate). Unlike Coming Home a few years later (see review) Dern's jittery presence is appopriate to the part, and I believe this is one of his better performances. The casting of him as a presumed biological brother to the not very lookalike Nicholson is a bit awkward. The most important problem, however, is the same once more: his character does not evoke a useful response with the viewer. There are both lovable and despicable scoundrels, and neither script nor Dern go enough of a distance to make this a person whose fate one wants to care about. Given his failed business plans and interaction with mobsters the deck is stacked against Dern's protagonist from the start, and there isn't enough benevolence to compensate for it.
So ultimately, the King Of Marvin Gardens sets two very different and not overly likable brothers against each other, with the expected bursts of animosity, nostalgia and blood-tie responsibilities. We learn a little more about them from their interplay, but it's nothing that changes the fundamental impression given from early on. Nicholson remains a loner, Dern remains an irresponsible screw-up, and their ways will part again after this brief reunion. The female companions get plenty of screen-time to work as dialogue sparring partners for the two brothers. Ellen Burstyn, much in demand at the time, is solid as usual as a former beauty queen in a love/hate relationship with Dern's unreliable hustler. The couple have sort of adopted a young woman with a striking, slightly eerie presence which seems perfect for the movie and its setting. Apparently an amateur actress named Julia Anne Robinson, this casting gamble pays off, and the sub-plot showing the competition between the ageing, former beauty pageant girl and the younger, future one offers a variant on a mother/daughter conflict that is both inspired and touching; clearly one of the film's assets. Burstyn is also involved in a plot twist towards the end that should surprise any first-time viewer, and may seem to jar with the dominating tone of status quo.
After this long litany about why and how King Of Marvin Gardens doesn't live up to Five Easy Pieces, I still have to say that I like this movie very much, and I believe those with a faiblesse for the radical '70s style of cinema will agree. There isn't enough rebellion and extroversion here to make a classic, but there is nevertheless a brilliant setting and an intriguing, original quartet of people. Bob Rafelson was one of the more adventurous directors of New Hollywood, and this neglected work offers up a rich catalog of aesthetic issues and cinematic questions that the post-Easy Riders era raised. To modern viewers with no particular interest or experience with this style the movie might look weird and possibly disjointed, but I do believe the Atlantic City milieu and Nicholson's understated performance will continue to fascinate. 7/10