King of Marvin Gardens, The

Reviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 10/21/10 14:20:08

"All Trite Talk Makes This One Dull Film"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Nothing here but strained attempts to make something "meaningful" without a single idea in its head.

The King of Marvin Gardens isn't so much an organically realized film as it is a one-hundred-four-minute collage of acting vignettes with a talented cast. The story is second-rate and the characters are no more than two-dimensional, which would be blatantly apparent to anyone who'd actually read the script. Partaking in this cinematic exercise are actors obviously hungering for the opportunity to dive into heavy-dialogue roles even though there's not really any dramatic tissue connecting them -- the more they spew monologues the more you're aware of how empty the whole enterprise is. This is another one of those well-worn tales where an array of low-rent dreamers band together to make real a get-rich-quick scheme that's all but guaranteed to peter out well before it has a chance of blowing up in their faces. The setting is Atlantic City, and Jack Nicholson stars as reticent David Staebler who's taken leave from his boring radio gig in Philadelphia (he reads his own short stories) because his trouble-making brother Jason (Bruce Dern) is in jail and needs his help; John lives a boring life with his grandfather, and you feel he just needs a short reprieve from it all even though he's not exactly an innate Mr. Excitement. Excitement, however, positively permeates out of the pores of live-wire James, who's an extroverted phony from the word go; and when he tries to lure John into a supposed can't-miss deal involving opening a casino on a Hawaiian island, the audience who's just been introduced to him knows it's going to be a bust, so why doesn't John who's known him just a wee longer than we have, especially since he can barely afford to stay in the posh hotel he says he owns? And in James's steady company are a couple of foxy females: Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and the much-younger Jessica (Julia Ann Robertson), with the former not particularly believing in him but attached to him just in case something grand breaks, and the former too wet behind the ears and slow-witted to listen to her better instincts. Trying to come out of his shell, John tries connecting with Sally but they're simply on different wavelengths -- she's on Cloud Five and he's still trying to stepladder up to Cloud Two. And we're then introduced to Lewis (Scatman Crothers), who James says is a trusted friend but who plainly has utter contempt for him. All of this is blatantly obvious to filmgoers with a mere ten brain cells, but the screenwriter, Jacob Brackman, and the director, Bob Rafelson, pretend that they're onto Truth and can't be bothered with contextual value. It's an appallingly sophomoric cinematic effort, and you're never sure where the dramatic focus is supposed to be because everything keeps uncouthly hopping around minus a necessary narrative through-line.

In letting loose a puerile parable of the denial of the American Dream, the filmmakers go through the motions predictably without offering so much as a smidgen of insight or biting humor. They want to make everything unpleasant to where the gray skies and drab interiors are constantly oppressing the protagonists -- they can never seem to get a break. Even their expensive room looks appallingly tacky. (How Jason manages to keep staying there when he could barely come up with the single-room rate when he returns from jail is never explained.) And when things aren't heavy-handedly presented, they're overstated to the point where Sally has to assess David as chock-full of negativity and depression with no sense of joy. For a film that's virtually plot-free, it doesn't compensate for this by even etching a textured sense of dailiness like French director Louis Malle brought off in the otherwise-trite 1980 Atlantic City. Granted, now and again the talented cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs rises to the occasion and gives us a decent suggestive shot when Rafelson isn't busy straight-jacketing him with his ultra-totalitarian insistence on visual drabness. And two of the performances are superb. Robertson creates an irresistible goofy portrait of an airy flower child with a subtle, percolating sex appeal that's all her own; the erotica she masterfully emanates is enough to bring any male helplessly to his knees. And Dern, a fearless actor, succeeds in being excellent in a showy role that's written rather monotonously. Jason is a firecracker of ideas and invests his all into them without ever really seriously sizing them up; his unchecked ego thinks he can make more of something simply by ignoring the faults than actually dealing with them -- he's all flash and very little substance, to put it quite generously. Dern's accomplishment is investing enough technique and imagination to fill in every conceivable corner of the character to keep Jason tolerable even though there's isn't a single valid underpinning within a three-block radius. As for Nicholson, who was galvanizing two years prior as the dissatisfied, gifted pianist in Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, I guess he should be commended for his willingness to play someone of deep-seated inexpressiveness, but David remains so nonplussed and uncommunicative throughout that there's not a single scene where we're glad he's around -- placing such a passive-aggressive character at the center of a low-energy film probably wasn't the best idea in the world. And to wash everything down with a glass of battery acid, an abrupt violent ending is thrown in that's less shocking and more indicative of a writer with an empty bag of tricks who proves he's capable of the same kind of silly sensationalism as his peers who he ignorantly seems to think he's superior to with all the preceding pseudo-truth nothingness.

It's got a decent 1.85:1 letterboxed DVD transfer from the same company that produced an equally-good transfer for "Five Easy Pieces."

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