Saturday, February 4, 2012

The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972) With Jack Nicholson


The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972) is proof of how great American films were in the 1970s, before Star Wars (1977) changed everything.

Now, let's not blame Lucas; after all, he made the character-rich American Graffiti (1973), didn't he? He didn't need special effects to do that.

Back to this Bob Rafelson classic.

The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972) is an odd, troubling film but it's also a risky and rewarding one. Frankly, the first time I watched it was one of the most enjoyable film-viewing experiences I can remember having.

Nicholson, cast against type as the bookworm, and Bruce Dern, as the shady brother, turn in 2 great performances. The film is full of moments that all matter. All the little weird bits seem to be necessary. Those bits add to the overall effect.

The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972) is a character study of 2 characters. Sure, the plot -- what there is of it -- drives things along, and there's a sense of doom all through the picture -- it doesn't take a psychic, or a film student, to know, as soon as Dern's Jason shows up, that this thing is gonna end badly -- but the film's careful and deliberate pacing is what makes it a watchable picture.


And let's not forget the simple pleasure in watching 2 of America's best modern actors at the peak of their powers practice their craft for nearly 2 hours.

It's worth noting that the frequently forgotten Ellen Burstyn is quite excellent in this film. She did this film between The Last Picture Show (1971) and The Exorcist (1973); she was no slouch in the acting arena either back then.

And for those of us who saw him on a bunch of TV shows as kids, it's a surprise to watch Scatman Crothers turn in a good performance here as a not-so-threatening gangster-type.


The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972) rewards viewers who have patience. I regret to say that it's probably too leisurely paced -- too European -- for the tastes of most viewers now. Even compared to Scorsese's work from the same era, it's more cerebral where Scorsese is emotional.

But it's also one of those films that I frequently point to when I'm arguing that Cinema can be every bit as fulfilling as Literature.

More focused than Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970), the script, by Times Square (1980) writer Jacob Brackman, is full of moments and details that tell this story.

The little bit of action here is not as important as the interactions between the brothers, as well as the stuff with the older brother's odd lady-friends.


The King Of Marvin Gardens (1972) is one of the finest American films of the 1970s. I might not revisit it as much as The Last Detail (1973), but I hold it in a similar position.

It's one of my very favorite American films.