The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

‘It’s Monopoly out there’. Jason Staebler, The King of Marvin Gardens, has gone directly to jail, lives on the Boardwalk and fronts for the local mob in Atlantic City. He is also a dreamer who asks his brother, David, a radio personality from Philadelphia to help him build a paradise on a Pacific Island – asking him to believe in yet another of his dreams, yet another of his get-rich-quick schemes. But luck is against them both and the game ends badly – real life reduced to radio drama.

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David Staebler, who suffers from chronic depression, is a Philadelphia-based late night radio host, his program on which he waxes philosophically about his less than satisfying life. Many of those stories revolve around his relationship with his two year older brother, Jason Staebler, who is always out for the big score, and living with their grandfather. After not hearing from Jason in one and a half years, David receives what is an urgent telephone call from him, Jason who wants David to act as the intermediary with one of Jason’s associates, Lewis, to bail him out of jail in Atlantic City, where he is charged with a felony. Although David doesn’t speak directly to Lewis as Jason had instructed, Lewis does bail him out of jail. David learns that Jason is living in Atlantic City, running one of Lewis’ third rate resort hotels.

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Jason lives in the hotel in one of the small suites with his girlfriend, Sally, an aging and fading ex-beauty queen who clings to that past as her sole identity. Also living with them is Sally’s younger longtime companion Jessica, to who Sally tries to pass along her beauty queen identity. Sally and Jessica’s relationship is more than meets the eye. For as long as David stays in Atlantic City, Jessica is his implied companion. Using his connections through Lewis, Jason says that he is working on a developing his own resort casino in Hawaii, and wants David to come along with him, Sally and Jessica. Deep in his heart, David knows that Hawaii is just another of Jason’s pipe dreams, just like all the other times he has made such proclamations. Regardless, David stays in Atlantic City for the two brothers to reconnect. However, this life cannot last forever, based partly on the several house of cards on which Jason is living, one of which is destined to crumble around him.

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The beauty of decay

2 April 2003 | by manuel-pestalozzi (Zurich, Switzerland) – See all my reviews

You can watch this movie without sound, you can watch it in the English original without understanding a word – it is still a great experience. The actors and their surroundings merge into a whole, which has one aim: To show the beauty of decay. Atlantic City (in its state in the early seventies) is shown as a dead end, a city to die in. In The King of Marvin Garden Rafelson used Atlantic City like Italian director Luchino Visconti used Venice in some of his movies.

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This is one of the very few genuine, serious colour movies I know. It is a delight to see just how much care was taken with the actor’s wardrobes, the set design and with the appearance of the sky in each scene. Ellen Burstyn (really one of the great American screen beauties) shines. Of course the should symbolize the beauty of decay. Well, there is more beauty than decay in this case, Burstyn looks gorgeous however hard she tries not to.

The most underrated movie of the 1970s?

Author: Infofreak from Perth, Australia.
30 April 2003

Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson’s creative relationship began because of The Monkees. Rafelson directing and Nicholson writing their weird and wonderful psychedelic cult classic ‘Head’.

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After that the two teamed up for one of the early Seventies best loved movies ‘Five Easy Pieces’. A couple of years later they did it again with ‘The King Of Marvin Gardens’, though inexplicably it doesn’t have the reputation or the high profile of their previous collaboration. I really fail to see why. File it under “great lost 1970s movies” alongside ‘Scarecrow’, ‘Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia’, ‘Tracks’, ‘Fingers’ (and add your own personal favourite to the list). Marvin Gardens features a really strong and controlled performance from Nicholson in the lead role, an introverted DJ with a show in which he spins “true” tales. But even better than Nicholson is Bruce Dern, a wonderful actor who never became a superstar like Nicholson, Pacino or De Niro, despite a long career of consistently good character roles in movies by Hitchcock, Roger Corman, Walter Hill, Hal Ashby, John Frankenheimer, Elia Kazan, Sydney Pollack and many others.

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Dern is absolutely wonderful as Nicholson’s brother, a dreamer and Mob hanger on. He comes back into his brother’s life with a nutty get rich quick scheme which ends up going horribly wrong. This is one of the very best performances by Dern I’ve ever seen, and his scenes with Nicholson make this essential viewing for any 1970s buff. Added to that are excellent performances from Ellen Burstyn (‘The Exorcist’, ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’) and newcomer Julia Anne Robinson (her only movie role – too bad!) as the women in Dern’s life, and nice bits from legendary musician/actor Scatman Crothers (‘Black Belt Jones’ and appearances in no less than four 1970s Nicholson movies) and the underrated John P. Ryan (‘Runaway Train’, ‘It’s Alive’, ‘Class Of 1999’). ‘The King Of Marvin Gardens’ is a slow and thoughtful movie, but once you get into the rhythm of it, an extremely rewarding one. One of Nicholson’s best, and Dern is just dynamite. Highly recommended.

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A quiet masterpiece

8/10
Author: calabazas from United Kingdom
21 May 2006

A classic from of the New American Cinema The King of Marvin Gardens is one of the most underrated films of the 70. The film stars Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson (cast against type as an introverted depressive) as a pair of estranged brothers reunited in Atlantic City to try to get scam artist Dern’s ill-conceived property development dreams off the ground. Ellen Bursten rounds out the cast as an ageing beauty queen struggling with the realisation that her young protégé, played by the previously and subsequently unknown Julia Ann Robinson, has surpassed her. Shot in a bleak, wintry Atlantic City that contrasts sharply with Dern’s vision of a happy ending for the quartet in Hawai’i, the film is a compelling and meditative character study that doesn’t shy away from or glamorise the problems of the people who inhabit it. The three leads give superb performances as characters who are all in their disparate ways seeking redemption. Made in the brief period of the 1970s when the big American studios were hoodwinked into financing films that were singular, intelligent, and challenging, The King of Marvin Gardens is a must see for any fan of the cinema.

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Dark, hidden, dirty gem of a film

10/10
Author: alec-10 from pacific northwest
17 February 2010

It’s ironically indicative of this movie’s theme and the relationship between American culture AND this film that the vast majority of IMDb raters have given this a 6 or 7 (out of 10). Most Americans that actually watch this film will be confused by it. Very strange, maybe, in that it is a truly American movie: American cast, American production, American themes, American sets, American problems, American answers. But, tell me–how do you rate yourself when you look back at that nude in the full length mirror right after you get out of the shower? If you’re feeling generous (and you’re only rating for yourself), you might get a 6 or a 7, right? Rafelson’s early (funnier…haha, couldn’t resist that), more critically successful Nicholson vehicle, FIVE EASY PIECES, has some really GREAT moments (like the toast-ordering scene), but ultimately, the pacing is off. There’s just not enough there, there. Not so with King of MV.

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WOW, this is one helluva emotional roller coaster. The much, much underrated and underutilized Bruce Dern gives one of his best two or three performances as Nicholson’s manic (American through and through) salesman brother. This riffs on Arthur Miller and all the best dramatic pitchmen roles from the 1st half of the 20th Century. Ellen Burstyn is spot on, as is the other female interest. But the real focus is on the guys. (And just a word about the late, great Scatman Crothers–so so excellent and iconic in this.) And now we get to Jack… …I think this is arguably his best performance.

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It is one of the very very few where his eyebrows were nailed down, anyway. His character is so weary, so defeated, so human, you’re tempted to think he’s a Russian or a Jew or maybe even a Russian Jew. But no, he is a through and through Willie Loman American. And one we so rarely see on the stage or screen–though we all know/have known them. They are that vast minority of reasonable, intelligent, sensitive, fairly strong and honest and wise individuals who just can’t take it or who just don’t think it’s worth the trouble having seen too many people taken advantage of or getting their teeth knocked out. They are sick of what they’ve seen; they are sick of not being able to toe the mark–even though they know that those expectations are unreasonable. Rare stuff, indeed.

BTW, this is NOT a happy movie–fair warning.

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Bless you, Bob Rafelson–a brilliant, brilliant film that should rest on the shelf next to Renoir and the very best of the 50’s British Angry Young Men cinema.

about as low-key as 70s movies get (that’s a compliment)

8/10
Author: MisterWhiplash from United States
29 September 2006

The King of Marvin Gardens was Bob Rafelson’s experiment at doing a film where the leads are switched around- the actors playing them, anyway. You rarely get to see Jack Nicholson in the role of the quiet, observant, and really more intuitive characters in any film, and to see it in his prime in-between doing films like Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail is a revelation.

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Every once in a while he pulls out a performance that is attuned to a sensibility that is surprising, even if the film is not. One of those that worked best was About Schmidt. But this time in Rafelson’s vision, he plays second fiddle to the more personable, idealistic, talkative, pushy, and far more conflicted brother played by Bruce Dern. For Dern this is also a somewhat different role, as he often could play roles with a good deal of dialog well, though with also a lowered guard. Here he plays a guy with lots of ideas, and those of which he really wants to impress upon his more detached but not too unresponsive brother. It’s a mix that works, though it’s very understandable why I’ve only seen it once, and not only do I not really desire to see it again, it’s not too much of a wonder why its still one of the real underrated films of the 70s.

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Keep in mind it’s not just the men to see here, but Ellen Burstyn too, in one of her other great parts of her real prime, as she plays Dern’s depressed, loopy, over-the-top girlfriend. She has her counterpart too in Julie Anne Robinson. Her character is maybe a little more like Nicholson’s, though not really as withdrawn. These are all characters who are estranged, if not from themselves then from each other, and amid the big plans in the (correctly chosen) sights of dreary Atlantic City they’re cast against a glow that just poses a kind of nothingness for them. And in the end, when tragedy strikes, it finally comes when the emotional cork gets pulled completely off. And bookending the film are Nicholson’s monologues on the airwaves to his listeners, whomever they may be, and they’re some of my favorite scenes I still remember from the film.

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If it’s less than really memorable and affecting like the best of 70s subversive cinema, it’s because its content in its low-key ways. It’s a smart movie that isn’t really at the heights of Five Easy Pieces- Rafelson’s masterpiece that’s also low-key in its way but reaches higher in psychological hang-ups- but it does come as close as anything the director’s done since. Most noteworthy is the challenge of reversing the roles for Nicholson and Dern pays off in that independent-film way. Look for Shining co-star Scatman Crothers in some scenes late in the picture.

Weak and painful

3/10
Author: Frances Farmer from United States
15 June 2012

“The King of Marvin Gardens” is an ensemble piece that turns on the collision of four dysfunctional people. Jack Nicholson plays a perennially depressed, bookish “straight” type opposite the “dynamic” and “goofy” Bruce Dern. Ellen Burstyn and Julia Ann Robinson play, essentially, a mother-step daughter team of hookers.

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None of these characters is compelling and all of them become quite grating in their various ways; Bruce Dern takes the prize as being the most annoying and tiresome of the bunch.

The movie is set in Atlantic City and makes frequent use of the more lurid, campy or bizarre aspects of that location. Unfortunately, the antics of the four main actors are mostly forced, mannered and flat. I found myself cringing at the strained quality of the movie as it reached toward inspiring in the audience some sort of artsy, reverse-chic epiphany it was nowhere near attaining.

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There really is no plot, and almost any scene could be deleted without affecting the remainder of the film…except for the happy outcome that the thing would be that much shorter. I sat through most of this mess but at a certain point I finally succumbed to my urge to walk out and… walked out. It felt really good to say goodbye to “The King of Marvin Gardens.”

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