The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

king of marvin gardens poster 1972 movie
8.0 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 8/10

Nice drama with a good cast

Feels like it could have even gone farther

Movie Info

Movie Name: The King of Marvin Gardens

Studio: BBS Productions

Genre(s): Drama

Release Date(s): October 12, 1972

MPAA Rating: R

king of marvin gardens jack nicholson burce dern hawaii plans

So we buy a Hawaiian island and essentially live like kings…seems legit, bro

David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) is a talk-storyteller radio host who deals with bouts of depression.  When he is contacted by his brother Jason (Bruce Dern) who is always running a con, David learns that Jason, his girlfriend Sally (Ellen Burstyn), and her friend Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) intend to buy a Hawaiian island to create a resort.  Jason tells David that the deal is all but done, but Davidlearns that Jason’s optimism might be displaced as the “deal” gets tougher and tougher.

Directed by Bob Rafelson (who also helped with the script), The King of Marvin Garden is a family drama.  The movie was met with mixed reviews upon its release.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #550) as part of its America Lost and Found:  The BBS Story.

The King of Marvin Gardens was the last film in the America Lost and Found:  The BBS Story collection that I watched.  It wasn’t necessarily because it was the last movie in the collection, but because I started it earlier and was having a hard time getting into it.  I love the actors in the film and I like the gritty ’70s look of most of the BBS films.  It isn’t a bad film, but the story doesn’t feel as developed as it could be.

king of marvin gardens horses on beach bruce dern jack nicholson

Suddenly we’ve entered a Wes Anderson film…

The story is the relationship between two brothers.  One is quiet and introverted though he has an extroverted job as a radio storyteller.  The other brother is an extrovert that loves to be the center of attention and is attracted to people and things that aren’t always in his best interest.  When the two brothers are together, they have an effect on each other although they frustrate each other.  Both characters seem to move toward a middle due to their past though their natural tendencies seem to repel each other.  When you add the wild card factors of an underworld boss and a manic girlfriend, the established give and take of the relationship isn’t understood by the outside parties…and it leads to danger.

The movie is another Jack Nicholson movie before he was “Jack”.  As a result, his character is the calm and quiet character while Bruce Dern takes the louder character that is closer to Nicholson’s later roles.  Ellen Burstyn’s character is intentionally all over the place as she rages and collapses due to her mental condition (which has moments that echo her later role in Requiem for a Dream).  Julia Anne Robinson is nice as the “normal one” of the group (kind of), but her career was cut short when she was killed in a fire in her apartment in 1975.  Scatman Crothers later rejoined Nicholson in both One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining.

king of marvin gardens ellen burstyn lobster dinner

Wait…tell me again about the dolphin…

The movie is set in the rundown Atlantic City.  The former tourist location was already faltering and going through a revision.  The idea of renewal reflects Dern’s look at life where there is a change and opportunity around every corner while the reality of Atlantic City is closer to Nicholson’s pessimistic or realist view.  It feels like this concept could have been used even a bit more to drive home the characters’ personas.

The King of Marvin Gardens is a movie on the fence.  It is close to being a great movie, but it only ends up being an above average or good movie.  It is often missing this extra nudge that is the most disappointing aspect of “good” movies.  You can see the potential and what it could have been if it had been tweaked and refined a bit…but the flipside of that is that tweaking and refining often goes too far and the spirit and style of the movie could have been lost.  Fans of Nicholson, Dern, and Burstyn should check out the film and enjoy the young performances of great actors in a movie at the cusp of their biggest roles.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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