Review: The King of Marvin Gardens

The story of two estranged brothers, one a straight-laced radio host (Jack Nicholson), the other we first meet getting out of jail (Bruce Dern). The latter is a con man and wannabe real estate tycoon, but he swears this time he’s got a sure thing going on a deal in Hawaii. He better make good, because he’s flanked by Ellen Burstyn and the younger Julia Ann Robinson, in some sorta maybe threesome-maybe family type deal that is never made terribly clear. What is clear, though, is that the girls are banking on Dern making all of them filthy rich, whilst Nicholson is forced to go into bat for his brother when the fit hits the shan, up against some rather dangerous-types. John P. Ryan and Scatman Crothers play important parts of Dern’s scheme, the latter a gangster.


Well-received at the time, this 1972 Bob Rafelson (“Five Easy Pieces”, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) flick hasn’t aged well at all, and now seems much ado about nothing. It contains an excellent, subdued turn by Jack Nicholson, who shares good chemistry with a well-cast Bruce Dern, even though they don’t really look like brothers. In terms of their screen personas, there’s a connection there that gets the job done, I think. However, the film itself lets a pretty interesting crime subplot go mostly begging in favour of the four main characters pretty much fart-arsing about putting on mock performances, and occasionally shouting at each other. Meanwhile, Nicholson (who shows his versatility in a mild-mannered part) gets the occasional, far too obviously scripted, flowery monologue by screenwriter Jacob Brackman (a songwriter and journalist whose only other screenplay was for the terrible flop “Times Square”).


The impromptu performance stuff drove me nuts, as did a shrill Ellen Burstyn (in a character that really belonged in another, very different film), though it’s a shame that Julia Ann Robinson died in a house fire after this her first and only major film performance. There might’ve been some potential with her, I think. But Burstyn’s character is bizarre, annoying, and takes up too much screen time. I really do think the more interesting film is with perennial screw-up Dern and his criminal problems, even if it’s pretty predictable. Unfortunately, because it gets shifted off to the side, it becomes elusive, confusing and somewhat underdone. The film also needed more Scatman Crothers. He’s terrific, as always (as is a young-ish and well-cast John P. Ryan), but has a glorified cameo because Rafelson and Brackman seem to think the film is about a wacky family of performers or something. It results in a film that goes not very far way too slowly before arriving pretty much nowhere of interest. It’s pretentious thumb-twiddling for the most part.


Two films trying and failing to exist as one, this film has definitely dated. The two stars are excellent, but there’s way too much meandering and pretentious histrionics for me. Trying and failing to add up to much of anything, it’s massively overrated. Proof that not every film Jack Nicholson made in the 70s is worth seeing.


Rating: C


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