The King of Marvin Gardens

The King of Marvin Gardens

August 25, 2016


How often do you see Jack Nicholson play a sensible guy? Some probably know him as the guy who’s always winning awards for playing yet another lunatic. See The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) if you have that ideology. The movie starts with David Staebler, Nicholson’s character. He might not be the protagonist in the movie but he gives us a heads up of what’s coming and we see most of the film from his point of view. A DJ at nights, David recites true, human, personal, existential, call them what you will, stories on the radio. On this particular night, he quietly tells the story why he doesn’t eat fish. He explains plenty about his grandfather and his brother, Jason. He obviously cares about these people.


We are in Philadelphia only on this first scene, David goes back home and we discover he still takes care of his grandpa, a crazy funny guy, kind of a Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo. We also see grandpa still gives “Davey” (he hates to be called like this) a hard time now and then. The jockey admonishes no emotion in return. David receives a call from his brother. He is inviting him to Atlantic City where he has a new business gig going on: buy an island in Hawaii and turn it into a Resort. David knows this is bullshit but still goes to give advice to his brother. The storyline then develops in different directions at a strange flow. The rest of the film takes place in Atlantic City, and its landscapes as well as inside references are shown towards the whole story. Bob Rafelson, the director, worked with Nicholson in several films, they all have this particular distorted way that sometimes they take moments in the present and throw them everywhere, as a viewer you think you are going nowhere, the future seems hopeless, nothing can be the same again, and at the end you realize everything is returned to place in careful manner, with probably a couple casualties.


David arrives, he is welcomed by a crazed Ellen Burstyn, Sally. Where is Jason? He is in jail. Of course. David goes to the rescue of his messy brother, played by Bruce Dern. At moments in the movie he talks for both himself and David, who probably says more in his opening speech than in the rest of the movie. Jason lives with Sally and her stepdaughter, Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). The acting is outstanding. The two girls at times seem to compete against each other. How many times have we seen family members act like these? A strong theme in the film is family competition.


The film progresses into a series of different peculiar scenes. We get deeply introduced to the two brothers and how they are. The girls only work as an instrument (I am not being chauvinist just stating what I felt towards these characters) but they also have their disputes and personal struggles that make them somewhat interesting characters. David and Jason seem to be total opposites. Jason is a criminal, he lives out of conning people and seems to, despite all of his problems, be an energetic guy with a purpose in life: get advantage of everyone and have a good time. David, in contrast, is just a boring guy. This probes with his boring radio show. He records his own voice at the restroom stating he has chosen radio to author his life stating: “Not because my life is particularly worthy but because it is hopefully comically unworthy,” a miserable line indeed.


There are a couple strange sequences. The two brothers having a conversation riding horses (it doesn’t sound strange but just watch it), a dance cabaret-like scene that easily seems as an inspiration for a David Lynch unexplained sequence, and a strange lobster dinner with Japanese businessmen. It also has a great small performance by Scatman Crothers. The film touches interesting conversations in a rather original story if there ever was one. The important message of the film is how these brothers came to be really different at their adult ages. But more than that: How the one that acts like an outlaw seems to have a good time with his life and the one who lives a completely straight life seems to struggle personally and socially. The resolution of the film heavily throws its last comment to the viewer about this. See it with your eyes.


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