The King of Marvin Gardens, Bob Rafelson’s 1972 drama about the fraught relationship between a pair of brothers, is bookended by two terrific scenes. When the film opens, we see David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) in close-up, his face in shadow as he delivers a bizarre monologue about why he doesn’t eat fish. A red light begins to flash against his skin, before the camera pulls back to reveal that his character, the host of a late-night radio show, is live on air. The film ends, back at the house that David still shares with his grandfather, with Super 8 footage of two young boys playing on a beach projected onto the walls of the home.
Jack Nicholson is excellent as the subdued and restrained, cardigan-wearing disk jockey, who is called to Atlantic City to bail his brother Jason (Bruce Dern) out of jail, after Jason has been cut loose by the mobster that he works for (the Italians and Jewish gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s have been replaced by African Americans, a subtle social commentary in the film). When David arrives in town, he finds that Jason is living with two women in a perverse love triangle and playing what turns out to be a very dangerous game. While the nature of the women’s relationship is at first a little unclear (could they be mother and daughter or sisters?), what is obvious is that Jason’s ‘girlfriend’, Sally (Ellen Burstyn), is in danger of being replaced by the much younger Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). David soon finds himself involved in his brother’s ludicrous scheme to build a resort in Hawaii with embezzled money (the film’s title is, of course, a reference to the board game, Monopoly). Jason never stops dreaming big, but his plans to get rich and be a player are clearly never going to amount to anything.
However, it is not the film’s plot that makes The King of Marvin Gardens such an interesting film to watch, but rather László Kovács’ stunning cinematography. He does a wonderful job capturing the air of decay that pervades the once-glorious Atlantic City. The beaches are empty, the luxurious hotels are ghosts of their former selves and, at times, it seems that the four protagonists are the only people in town. The film is full of surreal moments. When David first arrives at the station he’s greeted by an out-of-tune band hired by Sally; when another marching band parades down the boardwalk, there’s no one, besides the film’s audience, to watch them perform. The foursome later takes over a crumbling art-deco theatre to stage a beauty pageant, where Jessica is the only contestant. These absurdist scenes reflect the sense of disillusionment and madness that seeps into Rafelson’s depressed and deluded characters, making a tragic ending all but inevitable.
While The King of Marvin Gardens is intriguing, and a brilliantly filmed record of early 1970s American decline, it’s not really of the same calibre as Rafelson’s (and Jack Nicholson’s) better-known film, Five Easy Pieces, released two years earlier. And although both of the male leads are fantastic, the women’s characters are sometimes overwrought (or, in Jessica’s case, a little too simpering), although Burstyn still delivers a classy performance. The film is well worth seeing, but the real attraction is the stunning depiction of Atlantic City.
Watch a clip from The King of Marvin Gardens: