Friday, December 17, 2010

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

          A film that sounds more interesting than it actually is, The King of Marvin Gardens features a convergence of several of the most important players in ’70s cinema. The cast includes Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, and Jack Nicholson; New Hollywood mainstay Bob Rafelson co-wrote the story and directed; and acclaimed cinematographer László Kovács shot the picture. The narrative also seems like it should hit the sweet spot of early-’70s ennui, with Dern playing Jason Stabler, a small-time Atlantic City schemer who tries to rope his reluctant brother, David (Nicholson), into helping him put together some sort of casino/resort enterprise, much to the chagrin of Jason’s boss, mid-level gangster Luther (Scatman Crothers).
          But right from the beginning of the picture, pretentious opacity rules: The first scene features David performing a grimly nostalgic monologue for his late-night radio show about David and his brother watching their overbearing grandfather die, and the next scene reveals that the grandfather is very much alive. Presumably the idea was to establish a milieu exploring the gap between dreams and reality, but the film never comes into sharper focus than the opening sequence, so it’s a struggle to follow basic threads like what exactly Jason wants to accomplish and why he’s constantly accompanied by an unhinged middle-aged beauty named Sally (Burstyn) and her adult stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). In lieu of clarity, the movie presents gifted actors generating unusual dynamics, but the performances are inhibited by the film’s murkiness.
          Nicholson is muted to a fault, communicating his character’s lost quality by seeming lost himself, and Burstyn is uncharacteristically screechy, as if she’s flailing for some legitimate character motivation the script can’t provide. Dern comes off best, effectively personifying a huckster of limited ability but unlimited ambition, and it’s a shame that his fine performance appears in such a disappointing film. Kovács’ impeccable photography provides an unvarnished travelogue through the ghost-town streets of early-’70s Atlantic City, and it’s impressive that the film doesn’t have any musical scoring; to Rafelson’s credit, the focus is entirely on acting. The King of Marvin Gardens is very much of its moment, so now that time has deprived the movie of its currency as a counterpoint to the staid cinema of the studio era, it’s simply a clinical exercise in affected New Hollywood style.

The King of Marvin Gardens: FUNKY


Tommy Ross said...

yep, this one had great acting talent but the whole thing majorly misses the mark.

Groggy Dundee said...

"Pretentious opacity" describes this perfectly.