Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], Spanish Digital Mono, subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, Production Notes, Original Advertising, Talent Files, Bonus Trailers, rated R, 104 min., $24.95, street date 4/25/2000.
Directed by Bob Rafelson. Starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Anne Robinson, Scatman Crothers.
Oscar winner Jack Nicholson stars with Oscar nominees Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn in one of the most influential and unforgettable films of the American cinema.
Two years after his star-making role in Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson reunited with director Bob Rafelson for this gritty story of small-time losers and big-time dreamers in Atlantic City. Dern co-stars as Nicholson's older brother, a scam artist who's all style and no substance, and Burstyn excels as an aging beauty who has prostituted herself for an elusive shot at happiness.
Folks of my generation - that is, people for whom The Shining was probably the first time they'd seen Jack Nicholson in a big movie - have gotten awfully accustomed to watching Jack essentially play Jack. Oh, he's awfully good at it, and he has a larger-than-life persona second to none, but the fact remains that most of his roles of the last 20 years don't seem to have made him stretch too much.
As such, it's nice to get these older Nicholson movies on DVD and discover that Jack didn't always play himself. Today's case in point: 1972's The King Of Marvin Gardens, in which Jack performs a very nonflamboyant role as David, an introverted radio monologist.
As we learn early in the film, David's semi-estranged brother Jason is a petty crook and a big-time loser who's always on the make for that big score. Jason gets David to visit him in Atlantic City and entices him with tales of how they're going to start a new vacation paradise near Hawaii. David remains skeptical of the whole deal but slowly buys into it, as it feeds his fantasies of a more exciting life, since his seems pretty darned dull.
Interestingly, Jason seems much more like the somewhat scuzzy, splashy part we usually see Nicholson play, and according to the DVD's production notes, Jack originally was supposed to perform as Jason and Dern was going to do David; apparently director Bob Rafelson decided to spice things up by reversing the roles.
Overall, this was a successful decision, for both actors do well in the parts. Nicholson shows that he can pull off a somewhat timid and meek persona - or at least that he could do so then, but I doubt he could now - and Dern is convincing as the eternally-scheming con man. Really, their performances are probably the best part of the movie.
Unfortunately, it doesn't have much else to offer. At its heart, TKOMG really seems like a vague remake of Of Mice and Men in that we have a couple of guys who are perpetual losers in some fashion but they continue to dream of their big score. In fact, during one scene David even mockingly alludes to OMAM; as true as it is, that line is probably the movie's best.
But despite that momentary cleverness, we're still stuck with a film that really goes nowhere. It's a character piece that doesn't tell us all that much about the characters. In addition to David and Jason, a couple of women - Jason's girlfriend Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and her stepdaughter Jessica (Julie Ann Robinson) - are along for the ride, but they seemed to be absolutely superfluous additions; they add virtually nothing to the story other than some decent skin during one scene.
The brothers themselves never develop much beyond the sketchy descriptions I've already supplied; we know little more about them by the end of the film than we did at the beginning. And the end - oh Lord does this movie have a weak conclusion! I won't give it away, but I thought it seemed ridiculously abrupt and tacked-on; it felt like no one knew how to finish the story so they took a blunt and quick way to do so.
The King Of Marvin Gardens offers some good acting and a few interesting scenes, but I thought it felt like a muddled piece as a whole. What little story it provides barely moves, and the characters themselves aren't interesting enough to make me want to stay with them. It's not a failure, overall, but I didn't much care for it, even though it did give me a look at another side of Jack Nicholson.
The King Of Marvin Gardens appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was reviewed for this article. While it displays much of the flatness typical of films from the Seventies, TKOMG really looks quite good for a movie that's approaching its thirtieth birthday.
Sharpness appears consistently strong, with images that are usually crisp and well-defined. Some vague softness creeps into the picture on occasion, but this happens rarely. I noticed a few instances of moiré effects and artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV, but these did not occur frequently. The print itself seemed to be in great shape for such an old movie; I detected light grain at times and some occasional mild speckling, but that was about it.
Colors were a bit subdued but seemed well-saturated and accurate; many hues looked wonderfully deep and rich, and they stood out nicely. Black levels also were quite dark and dense, and shadow detail looked appropriate opaque but still left the images easily visible. Honestly, the worst thing about this DVD just stems from the film stock commonly used in the Seventies; many movies of that era simply seem flat and murky, especially during interior scenes. The King Of Marvin Gardens displays some of those tendencies but generally looks very good.
Less satisfying is the film's monaural soundtrack. It's not terrible for the era, but it definitely seems pretty weak. Dialogue consistently appears flat and dull, with a somewhat muffled quality; I usually could understand what the actors said, but it honestly was a bit tough at times. Effects are generally harsh and shrill, though they lack distortion. Music is pretty much a non-issue; TKOMG doesn't feature a score, and songs are only heard as background matter, so they weren't an integral part of the mix. This soundtrack earned a "C-" just based on its age, for it doesn't seem significantly worse than most mixes from the early Seventies. Nonetheless, I found the audio to be disappointingly thick and lifeless.
Even worse are the sparse supplements on the DVD. We find the usual crummy "Talent Files" that appear on many Columbia-Tristar DVDs; these offer only the most general information about director Rafelson and three of the actors (Nicholson, Dern and Burstyn) and are pretty much useless. Even worse is the "Original Advertising" section, which provides an image of one - count it! One!! - lobby card. It's not even worth the effort it takes to click on the section.
Five trailers appear on the DVD, but oddly, none of them are for TKOMG. Instead, we find previews for other Nicholson films: Five Easy Pieces, Wolf, As Good As It Gets, A Few Good Men, and Easy Rider. Finally, some brief but good production notes can be found in the DVD's booklet.
I didn't dislike The King Of Marvin Gardens but I thought it was a fairly bland and pointless character piece. The DVD provides pretty good picture but weak sound and no significant supplements. While there are worse films you could see, I think this one's for die-hard Nicholson fans only.
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