The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This film was a re-teaming of the group from "Five Easy Pieces", and you will easily spot the similarities in tone. Jack Nicholson plays a late-night radio monologist, spinning heart-warming material for insomniacs, laboring for a bit more than minimum wage. His brother (Bruce Dern) is a dreamer and a schemer, a very low level mob guy who dreams of opening up a casino and resort on his own island in Hawaii. The shy and scholarly Nicholson somehow gets enmeshed in his brother's criminal web.

The Dern character lives with two women, a stepmother and stepdaughter who are essentially classy hookers. In the original script, the Nicholson character was supposed to end up with the stepdaughter, a beautiful screen newcomer named Julia Ann Robinson. As the filming progressed, everyone realized that there was no chemistry at all between Nicholson and Robinson, and that Robinson was not going to be the next coming of Jessica Tandy, so the screenwriter kept reducing the significance of her role. I could see that Robinson had a couple of scenes that were pretty stiff and rough around the edges, but she was so ethereally gorgeous that I honestly didn't pay that much attention to her line delivery. At any rate, she never worked in another movie after this one. She returned to her home town and went to junior college. The book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" mentions that she had a serious drug problem, and some years later died in a tragic fire.

Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs did such respected films as "New York, New York," "Frances," "Mask," and "Ghostbusters," and he did a great job at evoking the lost glory, decadence, emptiness, and desperation of pre-gambling Atlantic City in the wintertime. For you foreigners, Atlantic City has had a great renaissance in the past two decades, and was a great resort in the 1920's and 30's. In between those two eras, however, from the end of the war until the legalization of gambling, it just kept getting seedier and more run-down. If for no other reason, you should see this movie just to see the marvelous evocation of that epoch of decay. The best view of the city comes in a sweeping panorama when Dern and Nicholson hold a standing conversation in a closed sky ride, a scene which serves as a tribute to the genius of another film, a classic called The Third Man.

Marvin Gardens has been largely forgotten, despite being a spectacularly filmed movie with the star power of Jack Nicholson. One of the reasons is that Nicholson was largely wasted in a non-Nicholson role as a soft-spoken nerd. Although he did OK in the role, there are times when you really wish he would show some of his usual spark. If you know your way around films, you are probably thinking that it would have worked out much better if Bruce Dern had played the shy, socially awkward scholar and Nicholson had played the free-wheeling dreamer. Well, you're quite astute if you made that observation, because that is exactly how the film was originally cast. Nicholson and Dern switched roles just before shooting started!

Overall, Marvin Gardens is a noble, if not totally successful, effort at creating a big-budget American movie in the European fashion, concentrating on character development rather than action. In fact some scenes further neither the plot not the development of the characters, but just seem to be there to create atmosphere. Not only is the point of those scenes utterly baffling, but at various times scenes seem to jump from one to another without clear transitions, so you have to fill in a lot with your imagination. Tres Euro!

Although I liked the film, I don't especially recommend it except for the marvelous visuals. If you're really a film buff, you'll have to rent the DVD just because it is a marvelous transfer of Kovacs' photography. If your tastes are mainstream, you'll find the film talky and disjointed and boring.  I enjoyed the total package, flaws and all, and consider it to be somewhere between a highly-flawed masterpiece and a noble failure, both of which are OK by me.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1, enhanced for 16x9 screens. (The other side is a 4:3 "standard" version.)

  • No features of significance.


Maybe she wasn't a great actress, but Julia Ann Robinson sure looked great with her top off in a squirt gun scene!

The other nudity in the film featured the very ample chest of 40-year-old Ellen Burstyn. Of course, there really aren't any nudes of Burstyn as a young woman. Burstyn, who won one Oscar and was nominated for four others, never made a movie at all until she was 37. She worked as a model, and then as one of the high-kicking Rockette-cum-Busby-Berkley hoofers called the June Taylor Dancers. You probably remember them from the famous overhead cam shots on the old Jackie Gleason variety programs. After her June Taylor years, she worked as a stage actress for a decade or so, with an occasional TV guest appearance until she caught a break and Peter Bogdanovich cast her in The Last Picture Show.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 3.5/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.3. This is the type of movie more popular with critics than mainstream moviegoers.
My guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C, but a spectacularly photographed one.

Return to the Movie House home page