[box cover]

The King of Marvin Gardens

Columbia Tristar Home Video

Starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, and Ellen Burstyn

Written by Jacob Brackman and Bob Rafelson

Directed by Bob Rafelson

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Jack Nicholson must feel some kind of innate kinship for director Bob Rafelson. Over the course of 30 years, their relationship has persevered, resulting in six films (if you include Nicholson's cameo in the 1968 Monkees' flick Head) of energetic non-conformity, though frequently coupled with staggering ineptitude.

Both actor and director made their names together in 1970 with the swaggering Five Easy Pieces, which was heralded on the merits of its finger to "the establishment" and Nicholson's charismatic emergence as a leading man. Their second pairing, however, in 1972, has no such saving grace.

In The King of Marvin Gardens, Nicholson stars as David Staebler, an uptight and longwinded AM radio philosopher with a recent history of emotional instability. The last thing he needed was a phone call from his erratic, dreaming brother, Jason (Bruce Dern).

A small-time hustler fronting for some big-time Atlantic City hoods, Jason has plans to break out on his own — with David's help — and start a classy resort on the island of Tiki. The next 90 minutes go like this: Jason brags and lies, David pouts, and there's lots of disconnected yelling and other hysteria involving Jason's two girlfriends: the horrifically shrill Ellen Burstyn (never worse) and wispy Julie Anne Robinson.

Rafelson, who got started as a writer and director for The Monkees' TV series, has a distinct talent for crafting loose, idiosyncratic moments that are both unexpected and lyrical. There are several such moments here, and while a few of them adequately capture Rafelson's free-spirited tone, he resolutely fails to incorporate these fleeting bits of novelty into any greater context or dramatic fabric. Mostly, they feel like slices of bad improv kept off the cutting room floor by an undisciplined, dramatically challenged visionary.

Nicholson is too reigned in by his passive character to salvage this mess — and when he does occasionally break into action it feels less like part of his arc and more like inconsistent writing and careless performing. Dern, as usual, does little more than chew scenery, and not even the divine presence of "Scatman" Crothers can do anything to jolt this dour, useless exercise in pap.

Why Nicholson continues to humor Rafelson's disputed talent as a filmmaker (and how their teaming survived 1986's romantic Man Trouble) is one of the small mysteries of movie history.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen or pan & scan, and 2.0 Dolby mono. Includes one original (and oddly chosen) piece of poster art, and "bonus" trailers of other Nicholson films. Keep case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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