List Film

The King Of Marvin Gardens (4 stars)

Reissue of forgotten 70s film starring Jack Nicholson by director of Five Easy Pieces

The King Of Marvin Gardens

'In the fun house, how do you know who's really crazy?' That's the pertinent question in The King of Marvin Gardens, the third film from Bob Rafelson, best known for Five Easy Pieces. This reissue is a chance to re-appraise the 1972 financial flop starring Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern.

Nicholson is sublimely subtle as depressive talk-radio DJ David Staebler. He's called to Atlantic City by his older brother Jason (Dern), an excitable crook and pie-in-the-sky-thinker who's mixed up with local mobsters, led by Lewis (Benjamin 'Scatman' Crothers). Jason has plans to open a Hawaiian island resort - their own kingdom, named 'Staebleravia'. As Jason plots, he and David hole-up in a boardwalk hotel where they're joined by aging beauty Sally (a mesmerically manic Ellen Burstyn) and her young companion Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). Revelations emerge regarding the exact nature of the unstable foursome’s relationships and the situation teeters on the brink of exploding.

As David says to his brother, 'things around here are pretty weird' and with Jason at the helm they keep getting weirder. There's an auctioneer audition, a privately-staged beauty pageant, and a farcical meeting with Japanese businessmen. Yet, rather than playing up the madness, Rafelson plays it down; his laidback direction is deliberately, brilliantly at odds with the colourful chaos on display (as is the out-of-season gloom) - reinforcing that we're seeing things through David's bemused, melancholic eyes. The screenplay too from Jacob Brackman (from an original story by Brackman and Rafelson) is sad and wonderfully strange. The King of Marvin Gardens reminds us of the diversity and dynamism of the New Hollywood movement. And how odd it is that a largely forgotten film should feel so utterly unforgettable.

Limited release from Fri 31 May.

The King Of Marvin Gardens

The King of Marvin Gardens

  • 4 stars
  • 1972
  • US
  • 103 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Bob Rafelson
  • Written by: Jacob Brackman, Bob Rafelson
  • Cast: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn

1970s Atlantic City: David (Nicholson) is a depressive talk radio DJ and brother of excitable crook Jason (Dern), who plans to open a Hawaiian resort. Rafelson's 1972 film was a flop on release but it's laid-back, sad and wonderfully strange, an unforgettable reminder of the diversity and dynamism of New Hollywood.


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