Flick of the Day: The King of Marvin Gardens

The rise and fall of Bob Rafelson's BBS Productions is the story of 1970's American cinema. At the vanguard of the movement to bring smart, literate cinema to the American mainstream, it quickly flamed out but in it short life, it left some genuinely ground breaking work such as Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show and today's flick of the day The King of Marvin Gardens. The story of BBS is documented in Peter Biskind's excellent account of 70's cinema Easy Riders & Raging Bulls however it was the failure of Marvin Gardens which dragged BBS down and marked a creative limit for how far mainstream audiences were prepared to follow a new generation of film-makers that were to blossom later in the decade.
A relentlessly downbeat look at the disillusionment with society of those on the margins, the film opens with a depressive radio DJ, David Staebler played by a reserved Jack Nicholson, who spends his days monologuing philosophy on his show in Philadelphia while looking after his aged grandfather. One day out of the blue, he gets a call from his estranged brother Jason, a manic con-man played by Bruce Dern who urges David to come to Atlantic City for his latest get rich quick scheme. Arriving to a wintry and decaying city that is long past its heyday and long before its rebirth as the town that gambling owns, he meets Jason's two accomplices, an ageing beauty queen named Sally played by Ellen Burstyn and her stepdaughter Jessica. David quickly realizes that Jason's plans are pie in the sky and tries to talk some sense into him but neither he nor the women in his life are listening leading to a tragic outcome for all.
Coming off a series of failures, BBS Productions was desperate for Marvin Gardens to be a hit and on paper it seemed a sure thing. It re-teamed the star and director of 1970's surprise hit Five Easy Pieces and had a fine cast including Ellen Burstyn fresh from an Oscar nomination the previous year. However, this dark and at times bizarre tale of urban alienation was too much for even the enlightened audience it was aimed at. In retrospect it is not a bad film and despite an initial feeling that the two male leads Nicholson and Dern should switch roles, they do deliver strong performances with Dern excelling as the extrovert con-man and Nicholson showing his range as the permanently depressed DJ. The gritty realism of Laszlo Kovacs cinematography gives the off-season Atlantic City a dark beauty and highlights both the decay of the city and the isolation of the characters.
The real emotional heart of the film is that each of these characters apart from David places money and fame above personal relationships and each are damaged individuals because of it.
Jason Staebler: You notice how it's Monopoly out there? Remember Boardwalk, Park Place, Marvin Gardens? 
David Staebler: Go directly to jail? 
Jason Staebler: Well, that's me. Don't pass go, don't collect $200. 
While not one of the all time greats, it is still an affecting and hard hitting drama of human relationships. Nicholson's David is as emotionally reserved as Dern's Jason is out there and the various bizarre scenarios they find themselves in merely highlight this emotional emptiness in their lives due to the focus on money.
All in all, this is a dark and downbeat film with an ending that will leave you feeling ill at ease. That said, there are some fine performances from the leads and the cinematography makes the most of the wintry setting of a depressed Atlantic City. Nicholson's career would go on to bigger and better pictures but he shows real range as the dour David while Bruce Dern makes the most of one of his better roles in the 70's. A touchstone for where the decade went in terms of cinema and a historically important film.