King of Marvin Gardens, The (1972)

King of Marvin Gardens, The (1972)

“You notice how it’s Monopoly out there?”

A radio d.j. (Jack Nicholson) visits his petty-gangster brother (Bruce Dern) in Atlantic City, where he learns about Dern’s unrealistic plan to “get-rich-quick” by buying property in Hawaii.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bob Rafelson Films
  • Bruce Dern Films
  • Ellen Burstyn Films
  • Gangsters and Criminals
  • Get Rich Quick
  • Jack Nicholson Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Siblings

In his follow-up to Five Easy Pieces (1970), director Bob Rafelson presents a similarly no-holds-barred look at family relations and broken dreams in America. Unfortunately, however, Marvin Gardens comes across as too relentlessly bleak for its own good — while Five Easy Pieces had many classic moments of humor interspersed with its more serious themes (remember the cafe scene?), this film seems hell-bent on leading us towards its tragic conclusion, without providing much relief along the way. On the other hand, it does possess a number of redeeming features. The performances are uniformly excellent — especially by the always-reliable Dern, and by Ellen Burnstyn as his jealous aging girlfriend. Additionally, Rafelson makes effective use of Atlantic City’s gloomy seaside ambiance; and the connections between Dern’s wild dreams (he hopes to buy a hotel) and Monopoly are subtle enough to be clever rather than cloying. Ultimately, however, this remains a ceaselessly downbeat tale, one which is probably not for every taste.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bruce Dern as Nicholson’s “big-dreaming” brother
  • Ellen Burstyn’s stand-out performance as Dern’s middle-aged lover

Must See?
No. While it’s considered an underrated classic by many, it’s ultimately not must-see viewing.


One thought on “King of Marvin Gardens, The (1972)

  1. Not a must. Peary seems partial to director Rafelson – five of his films are in his book – but he bears some resemblance to Jarmusch in terms of track record. Like ‘Stranger Than Paradise’, ‘Five Easy Pieces’ received mega-attention (deservedly so) when released. With ‘The King of Marvin Gardens’, the director had just scored a hit and returned with the star of that hit (and the controversial ‘Carnal Knowledge’). Ellen Burstyn had just broken through with ‘The Last Picture Show’, and Bruce Dern was finally given a high-profile lead. But, star power notwithstanding, the film was ultimately tepid – then and now.

    As noted, it’s “relentlessly bleak”. No problem: ‘Shoah’ is bleak, and hours and hours longer, but I would sit through it again. I gave ‘King’ a second chance a few years ago, and still it seemed to sit there. It does have cult film status, and many film fanatics like (and find something in) this unsatisfying, oddball flick. But, of the Rafelson films Peary lists, ‘FEP’ is the real king. It’s been a while since I saw ‘Head’, ‘Stay Hungry’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (all at least more interesting). But ‘TKOMG’ is too forgettable to call a must.

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