Hustling hope in The King of Marvin Gardens
Directed by Bob Rafelson and written by Jacob Brackman (from a story they both conceived), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is a ‘70s-style fairy tale set in magically ugly Atlantic City.
Jack Nicholson plays David Staebler, a sad-sack overnight radio show host, living with his grandfather in Philadelphia. Bruce Dern plays David’s older brother, Jason, a con artist in pre-casino Atlantic City, shacked up with the screwy Sally (Ellen Burstyn, who knows how to play crazy) and her step-daughter, Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), a beauty pageant hopeful.
Jason’s been working for a local hood named Lewis (the great Scatman Crothers), setting him up with pieces of boardwalk hotels and other ‘straight’ ventures around the country. Jason’s got a new deal, involving an island getaway in Hawaii, and invites David to New Jersey to take part and eventually move to their Pacific paradise. David first has to bail Jason out of jail. He was supposed to do it with Lewis’ help, but that was a non-starter, for reasons we learn later. Jason is trying to fund this latest scheme behind Lewis’s back, reaching out to Japanese investors. Lewis is tired of Jason’s blabbermouth ways and tries to pin an auto theft rap on him, to cut him out of the picture while Lewis tries to expand his business. David is not entirely sold on Jason’s idea, but plans ahead out of pure exhaustion of his own pathetic life.
Jason moves and shakes, showing off David’s smarts, while trying to push the girls on him, too. They each have to put up with Sally’s increasing paranoia about her aging looks and verbal lashings at Jessica, who’s too confused and stupid to scram. After turning off the investors over some lobster dinner, and learning that Lewis has every intention to land Jason in jail and squash whatever he thinks he’s got planned, David snaps out of the fantasy and realizes Hawaii isn’t happening. Jason’s in denial about his legal fate and stubbornly persists that they skedaddle for the island right away, making it up as they go. When David tries to argue reason and Jason draws a line for who’s in or out, Sally fears that she’s expendable. She hits her nuttiest boiling point and shoots Jason dead. David brings Jason’s body home to Philly and goes back to work at the radio station.
There isn’t much to dissect about the plot. No twists, no turns, no mystery. It’s just a story about two very different brothers sharing the same dream. But the whole picture is a little off. It’s dream-like in spots, dreary and dirty in others. Rafelson gives us long shots of the never-ending coastline and the majestic hotels rising above the shore. Then he muddies the images with shanty boardwalk storefronts. And check out the mock beauty pageant in an empty convention hall. Jason and Sally burning their clothes in an immense bonfire on the beach. Stepmom and daughter playing topless with water pistols. The vibrator, and jars of Vaseline and lube on the night table.
The brothers are trying to shed their past. A past they haven’t shared since childhood. Although Jason’s idea is doomed, and David fights a losing cause for his brother’s sake against Lewis, they still hold onto a future together in what Jason refers to as their “kingdom.” Their argument in the hotel room during the film’s final sequence makes this clear. Neither is thinking hard about Sally and Jessica. But they got their dicks in a vice for each other, for better or worse.
Lewis is the steady voice in the film. He’s mellow and smiling, telling it like it is and like it’s going to be. He knows all about Jason and his tendencies. He knows that you can’t buy what he sells, no matter how much you might like him. It’s a window into the reasons why Jason messes around with people like Sally and Jessica. They’re dug deep in delusion. Jason is just another cloud in their heads. But it’s also why David confronts him. It’s why David shows off in front of the auction house owner talking shit to Jason and pulls a gun on Lewis’s thugs. Jason can’t cloud David. He can’t switch off David’s tape recorded memories. David is preparing to die or drift away, we can never tell, until he slips back into the real world and warns his brother against dreaming.
There’s no need telling you that Nicholson, Dern and Burstyn are the tits. As expected. But Crothers and Robinson are no throwaways. Crothers has this amazing ability to look sinister and smooth, mouthing hard words and harsher implications with lyrical ease. Robinson is the girl wrapped in a woman. Pretty and petite, she dances big in big scenes, and wells up even bigger tears. But her speech is small and soft. When she walks in on David talking into the tape recorder in the bathroom, she excuses herself with fluffy embarrassment and encourages him as “an artist” with fearless flirtation. Sadly, this was Robinson’s only film role. She died tragically in a fire in 1975 at the age of twenty-four.
There’s a great line that Jason says to David at the auction house early in the film: “I love all the hustle around here. It’s out in the open.” That’s the basic theme Rafelson explores. The scam permeates everyone and everywhere. It’s the false promise of better things. It’s the toothless expectation of change. Maybe David finds some fun and contentment. Maybe Jason can stop having to believe his own bullshit.
The King of Marvin Gardens
Producer & Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Jacob Brackman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Julia Anne Robinson and Scatman Crothers
Release Date: 1972
DVD available here.