Before beginning this review of Bob Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), let me start with an apology. Chronologically, the film is the last entry in the Criterion Collection's "America Lost and Found: The BBS Story" box set. While it wasn't the last film that BBS produced (the Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds takes that honor---a film that also was given the Criterion treatment a number of years back), it marks the set's opposite bookend to Rafelson's debut film, Head (1968). Thus, while I'm going out of chronological order, there is a certain symmetry to this decision. Head helped usher in the New Hollywood Era with BBS while Marvin Gardens was the middle-of-the-end.
The film stars Bruce Dern (Family Plot, Coming Home) and BBS regular Jack Nicholson (fresh off the success of Rafelson's previous film, the seminal Five Easy Pieces) as a pair of estranged brothers. Dern's character, Jason, is a charismatic con-man, running errands for Lewis (Scatman Crothers) while trying to wrangle together money for a luxury resort and casino that is to be built in the Hawaiian islands.
Jason brings in his soft-spoken, introverted brother David to help him in his operation. Jason dubs David, who moonlights as a intellectual talk radio host, "the philosopher king." While Jason has the ability to smooth talk his investors (and marks), he realizes that he not only longs for his brother's approval but needs David's logical approach to reassure his investors. What Jason doesn't expect, or necessarily listen to, are David's appeals to logic: this casino plan, as we can tell from the very beginning, will never come to fruition. Jason is so good at telling people what they want to hear that he has pulled the ultimate con on himself.
Along for the ride are Jason's other charges, the middle-aged Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and her daughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson). He uses the ladies to, once again, try to make his dreams of building the casino and resort come true, be it in the form of having Sally take a group of investors out for a lobster dinner or promising Jessica to David. The King of Marvin Gardens is, as I'm figuring out the hard way, a difficult film to describe. Nothing really happens. It's a con film in which the con never happens and it's understated to the point that it may feel boring on a first viewing, but there are so many layers to unpack here. Like Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1996), this is less about the destination of the crime film than it is about the journey.
Part of the density here is extra-filmic. It is a treat to watch Dern, Nicholson, and Burstyn together. According to Rafelson, Dern and Nicholson were cast against type. Nicholson's outgoing personality (as documented in Five Easy Pieces) would have been an ideal match for Jason. Yet, it is a testament to Dern and Nicholson, Rafelson's casting, and Jacob Brackman's script that the reversal works wonderfully. This clearly gave both actors an opportunity to demonstrate his range and, quite simply, he does not disappoint. The other aspect of the film that grabbed my attention was the combination of László Kovács's cinematography with Rafelson's choice to not include any musical score at all. The decision leaves the Atlantic City setting of the film barren, shrouded by a winter chill. The boardwalks are deserted, the ricketing metal cables running the attractions scrape against one another. The end result is what undermines the futility of Jason's dream: his empire will never come to fruition; his American dream is doomed to failure.
The AV Quality
Criterion's Blu-Ray treatment of the film comes with a restored transfer, supervised by Kovács. Quite simply, it looks wonderful. Like most Criterion releases, the 1.85:1 widescreen print showcases a healthy, but not distracting, amount of grain. The soundtrack, uncompressed mono, captures desolate winter of the setting.
The Supplemental Features
The King of Marvin Gardens, unlike some of the other entries in the BBS set, is a little stripped on the extra side of things. Rather than a full-length commentary, Rafelson provides an hour-long "select scene" commentary (which captures about 2/3rds of the movie, so I can't help but wonder why he didn't just record the whole thing). It's a good piece, but it gives us many of the same anecdotes that an included documentary, "Reflections of a Philosopher King" (which also features interviews with Burstyn) and interviews (with Kovács and Dern also have contributed to) cover. I would have loved to see a documentary on the legacy of BBS or on what caused the demise of the company included in the set. We get a decent enough coverage of the advent of the company, which makes the absence of footage on the fall seem odd. Admittedly, I'm splitting hairs on what is an absolutely great set, but the film really had me wanting more---particularly some interviews or a commentary with Nicholson.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.
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