Friday, March 6, 2015

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

During the 2014-2015 NFL season, the Green Bay Packers defeated the New England Patriots by a score of 26-21 at Lambeau Field. Prior to the game, Large William and I agreed upon an interesting wrinkle: if my Patriots won, he’d be required to watch and review a movie of my choosing for the Midnite Ride (e.g. Jamaa Fanaka’s STREET WARS), whereas if the Packers won, I’d cover 1972’s THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS for the GGtMC blog. This particular gentlemen’s bet was a win-win proposition. It’s long overdue, but here’s my end of the deal.

The antiquated architecture standing in the Atlantic City occupied by this film’s characters was long gone when I walked off the boardwalk and onto the frigid sand nearly 40 years later to spread a departed family member’s ashes. Despite this difference in mise en scène, I can tell you with certainty that Atlantic City in the winter months is every bit as bleak and biting as it is in Bob Rafelson’s 1972 film, THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS. While the characters find that it’s a terrible time and place to hatch a real-estate scheme or get hired as an auctioneer, it proves more than adequate for bonfires and horsey rides.

During a broadcast into the wee hours, talk-radio personality David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) is urgently summoned to Atlantic City by his older brother, Jason (Bruce Dern). Without any further context, David leaves Philadelphia and arrives at the train station, only to be collected by his brother’s cheeky companion, Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and a clumsy welcoming band of drums and brass players. Trombone Shorty, they ain’t.

When the brothers first reunite, they do so with jail bars between them; jailed for reasons unknown, Jason is optimistic he’ll get out by sundown if David can track down a guy named Lewis. That doesn’t quite materialize, but Jason is cruising around the boardwalk on a motorized caddy in what seems like only hours later. He reveals a plan to secure real estate for a gambling enterprise on an obscure South Pacific island, and he wants David as a partner. Along for the venture as something of a support team are Sally and Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), a pretty young thing as naive as she is fun-loving. Both women occupy points in an uneasy love triangle with Jason.

As the plan develops, it unravels at nearly the same rate. Certain events reveal Jason’s pattern (neurosis?) of overselling. (Case in point: Jason may not be able to afford the room in a historic hotel he’d convinced Sally he owned). David can barely contain his unease about the scheme and it seems that simply being near his brother puts him on edge. Sally is losing both confidence and trust in Jason, and shifts an envious eye towards Jessica. Failure doesn’t adequately describe the worst possible outcome for this motley crew.

Despite their shared genetics, the differences between the Staebler brothers couldn't be more stark. David is an introverted storyteller leading a dull life in a Philadelphia apartment he shares with their grandfather. Jason is a charismatic con artist and feverish dreamweaver with lofty aspirations. At a dinner following his release from jail, Jason sucks down brightly colored cocktails while rapping about stolen cars full of Swiss watches as David nurses a glass of milk. Rafelson leaves no stone unturned -- be it visual, narrative, or in characterization -- in illustrating this contrast, yet his efforts never feel try-hard, nor do moments feel unearned. 

Lensed by legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, the film has a bounty of well-composed scenes with tight framing and offbeat arrangements. One of my favorites features Dern and Nicholson facing each other on horseback on the beach, with the animals barely stirring. Why? No idea. Many of the exterior shots on and around the boardwalk have an overcast, dreary look that reflect a decaying environment, but there are timely and purposeful tweaks to the palette -- a daytime bonfire scene which acts as a liberating cleanse for one character might be the brightest among them.

The film is book-ended by a pair of David’s on-air monologues which border on confessionals. I won’t spoil the content or moods of either, but the first one trails off with David describing he and his brother as “accomplices” before a phone call to his booth engineer abruptly interrupts the conclusion -- the same call that prompts his trip to Atlantic City. Towards the end of the film, David delivers an equally engrossing monologue that transitions into a scene where the brothers’ grandfather projects an 8mm home movie on the apartment’s wall showing the two young boys building a sand castle at the beach -- in other words, a temporary structure assumed to be knocked down or washed away. In lesser hands, this closing visual may have come off as clumsy or sickly sweet, but I found it dovetailed nicely with the film’s themes of lofty ambitions and a fleeting (but persistent) want for paradise.

MVT: This is a character-driven film and as such, how you evaluate it depends a lot on how convinced you are by the on-screen relationships. Both Dern and Nicholson put forth measured performances of two complex characters existing in a state of vascillating stress due to their  oppositional quirks. Burstyn is amazing as Jason’s aging, slighted lover. The charismatic performances are great and the chemistry is even better, but the underlying dynamic between the brothers is the most valuable thing in the film. I have a younger brother myself, and I found this element relatable. Fortunately, it's much more dysfuntional than how he and I relate to each other.

Make or Break: There are plenty of scenes featuring crackling dialogue. There are other moments that reveal nuanced and meaningful characterizations and the dynamics among the players (both individual relationships and as a group). There’s dazzling imagery throughout. The scene in the abandoned convention hall where our foursome puts on a mock Miss America paegent combines all of these elements and was a big make for me. David stiffly narrates as the paegent host, Jason screams encouragement from atop a stack of cargo boxes, Jessica plays the wide-eyed starlet, and Sally is off to the side playing the world’s largest pipe organ (allegedly).

Score: 7.75 / 10

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