(or, Depressing Films of the Early 1970s, #4: The King of Marvin Gardens)
A couple of immediate impressions, in reverse order...
Mainly: Atlantic City in the wintertime of 1972 looks for all the world like the elephant’s graveyard, the place where the American Dream of unending postwar prosperity went to meet its final resting place. The aging tourists line up for the photographer along the boardwalk. The tourists are old enough to remember the boardwalk and the City’s glory days. They line for the photograph in the shadow of the hotels along the boardwalk, the hotels which also once knew – if not hosted – those long-gone glory days, their flanking facades a persistant motif throughout the film, themselves lined as a backdrop before the camera of cinematographer László Kovács. Autumn years all around, for nearly everything and everyone. For the pensioners, for the hotel owners throwing in the towel and putting the whole kit & kaboodle up for sale, perhaps even for the enterprising young hustler who wanders onto the scene and thinks that maybe there's an opportunity of a lifetime to be wrung from it all.
But initially, before any of that: You’re confronted by the fact that It’s a bold move to begin a film with a full six-minute monologue. With a tight close-up of a face floating in darkness, pensively spinning a morbid tale. Especially when that monologue – in lieu of any other contextual prompts – at first appears to be some sort of confession, the sort of confession that usually only turns up in the course of a group therapy session. It’s only well past the five-and-half minutes that the viewer is given any sort of clue as to what’s going on.
David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) is a writer living in Philadelphia, residing in mid adulthood at home with his elderly father. It’s difficult to tell what sort of writer he is exactly, aside from being a somewhat dark and dejected Jean Shepherd type – sending his stories out over the airwaves of a local radio station between 2-3 AM, relating them to whoever’ll bother to tune and listen during such lonely hours. But it’s clear that his life is cloistered and hermetic; a life devoted or resigned – we gather – to a peripheral existence.
Or so it's been up until the night he receives a call at the station during a broadcast. It ends up that the call is from his older brother Jason, to whom he hasn’t spoken with in a number of years. As it turns out, his brother is summoning him. Jason (Bruce Dern) has a new enterprise in the offing, he's in the process of taking over an Atlantic City hotel that was recently put on the auction block by its owners. "The Essex Carlton – the Oldest and Finest Accommodations on the Boardwalk." And Jason wants David to aid in the venture – to help him bring the deal to a close, with handling the outgoing management as things change hands, with the wheeling and dealing of roping in investors. And Jason also wants his younger brother to share in the eventual reward of the enterprise.
Thing is, it soon becomes apparent that Jason didn’t swing the deal on his own, but has instead fallen in league with some questionable business associates – organized crime, by all appearances – to help him leverage the purchase. What's more, David arrives to find his brother holed up in one of the hotel’s suites with a pair of female companions – the older Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and the much younger Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), the latter apparently being the former’s stepdaughter by a previous marriage. Jason's not sure what's going on between the three, about the exact nature of the sexual relations involved, and he’s fairly sure he's better off not knowing.
Throughout, David remains skeptical about many of his older brother’s boasts and claims, if not about the business venture as a whole. Still, he wants to be a part of it – maybe for the sake of joining the larger world that Jason inhabits, maybe with the hope of reviving the fraternal ties and ambitions of years-gone-by, maybe both. Despite these misgivings and the feeling of being a peripheral latecomer to the whole affair, David plays along at times and finds that he actually enjoys the opportunity of walking in someone else’s shoes – enjoys, for instance, playing the role of co-owner and pitching the hard sell to a pair of potential Japanese investors over dinner. But at other times his doubts aren’t so easily shaken; at which point Jason harangues him for his chronically sadsack demeanor, his defeatist pessimism, his pragmatic caution and his chronic lack of faith. Even though, as soon becomes apparent, Jason is blithely sailing into treacherous waters.