Written by / 6/22/2020 / No comments / , , , , , , , ,

JACK NICHOLSON 'THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS' BRUCE DERN

Jack Nicholson in THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS Year: 1972
Who knows, maybe directors never really outgrow their primal, rudimentary, symbolic, allegorical, idealistically pretentious, metaphysical, narcissistic, nostalgic mindset of film school...

And in that, following what would forever remain their collaborative pinnacle, FIVE EASY PIECES director Bob Rafelson gave his close friend and future multi-collaborator Jack Nicholson a break from the (possible) stereotype of being the discontented, blunt, feisty rebel type, which he'd proven to be perfectly suited for: Then again, maybe he should have played Bruce Dern's conniving con-man older brother Jason Staebler, on the stumbling verge of an Atlantic City land deal with a few obstacles including a potentially dangerous kingpin and especially his women...

Poster for THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS
Dern, though, is nicely suited for the part, and while stretching as an actor is a good thing, Jack's bookish underdog comes across as awkward, and in holding back what we know of his limitless range, somewhat frustrating to witness... Then again, MARVIN GARDENS centers on the combination of an Alpha Male and Beta, so it simply takes time getting used to Nicholson as a complete pushover in the little brother part of David, who Dern's Jason controls and manipulates, and uses. But the struggling Philadelphian has only in philosophically what he lacks financially...

The film opens with a relatively long pre-credit one-shot take of Nicholson's David, spinning a long yarn (without his usual vocal styling that he'd be accused of lazily falling back on in years to come) centering on his father and grandfather. The camera pans back slowly from an Extreme Close Up (ECU for scriptwriters) to reveal his artistic trade as a radio disc jockey – not the kind that introduces songs but some kind of storyteller; an occupation suited for a low budget, avant garde film: a quirky job given to characters who have time to go on a journey, with no timecards hindering them.

Bruce Dern hatches another plan in GARDEN
During his mid-early prime years, this opening monologue – in an obscure film wedged between FIVE EASY PIECES and (arguably) his best performance in Hal Ashby's THE LAST DETAIL – seems like a dream come true for Nicholson fans, but winds up more of a bedtime story for wayward beatniks (the grandfather of hipster's)...

A pallid vibe that dogs the rest of an otherwise beautiful looking canvas where, in real life, behind the scenes, Rafelson's crew had to lug heavy equipment to the upper floors of the main location's New Jersey/Atlantic City hotel room just so flying birds could be visible in the background...

Ideed a labor-of-love motion picture with a slowly moving landscape: Which can and should be all Dern's to own. He's the kind of unapologetic wheeler-dealer able to keep two ladies intact; a subtle hooker team-up that has Ellen Burstyn's intense and determined Sally with her tag-along, younger and (arguably) prettier step-daughter, Jessica, played by a little known actress, Sally Ann Robinson, who, in a way, fits the era more than anyone else –  while Burstyn attempts to fill the "real deal dame" ala Karen Black of FIVE EASY PIECES, Robinson provides the Susan Anspach with sun-drawn, long-haired, natural beauty – who Bruce (as this film's Jack) is really after...

Jack Nicholson and Julia Anne Robinson
Experiencing Burstyn somewhat wasting her talent on a seemingly non-scripted actor's workshop is like Nicholson's role as the vehicle's blown-out front tire – stuck on the passenger's side since Dern is left to  drive the piece, and he's fun to watch as more a sociopath than his usual psychopath...

But KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, in which everything, down to the very title, is so ambiguously lacking in plot and overall structure, no one character's able to shine beyond the washed-out aesthetic of a town resembling colorful learning blocks leftover from a ambitious night's work. In that, what Dern's really after is told to us up front, but he never seems to really want anything but time with his brother – hell, maybe that's the hidden depth and meaning of the entire picture...

Sick in Atlantic City
Because there's an addictive, laid-back aura throughout, making the exterior-set arthouse independent film one to re-watch if you want to get anywhere at all, and so not to waste two-hours of Nicholson in his edgy youth taking another path entirely...

The only scenes really difficult to survive are whenever the dimensionless main cast suddenly alter personality traits – as Jack's necessary "moral conscience" turns into a sporadic b.s. artist while Dern sits silent and proud feels like on-the-spot improvisation, which is a good thing but only when it flows through the dialogue and not just with it...

Then again, this sudden shift-of-mood winds up working in our favor when Burstyn's energetic Blanch Dubois version of a "gangster's moll" narrows her wry grin into what'll become an important element in this character-studied student film, reflecting the waning days of the counter-culture movement, done finding themselves and left to search for what's completely out of reach – while "lot's of money" is the easiest answer, it's really up to the audience to decide...

Main Poster Image SCORE: ***
Which ultimately seems like the entire purpose here: to look past the hands-on brilliance of FIVE EASY PIECES, a celebrated 1970 classic, unfortunately known more for "chicken between your knees" but that had evolved in depth, scope and characterization past the director-friendly Renaissance Era's Shot at Lexington and Concord, EASY RIDER...

For GARDENS, was it up to Rafelson and Nicholson to go one step past PIECES or two over RIDER (which had made Jack, a last-minute replacement for Rip Torn, a sudden star because it came out first while, years earlier, Rafelson wanted the credit for Jack's catapult from B-Movies to the A-List with PIECES, always intended for Jack in mind)? Either way and overall, what's best learned from this flawed but intriguing, theme-driven venture was that there seemed to be nothing more to learn in taking the counter-culture route...

And so, years later, spanning two decades, it would take the actor/director team to work backwards, using a bonafide Neo Noir template in each – the second a 1990's Florida-based "modern day" slow-burn, post-heist flick and beginning with what fans of 1940's Pure Noir never wanted, and still shake their fists at – and so, let us begin with...
John P. Ryan and Bruce Dern in THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS
Jack Nicholson in THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS


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