I have only recently -- admittedly, belatedly -- come to really appreciate what a remarkable set of circumstances was made possible by BBS Productions in the late '60s and early '70s, and certainly what a remarkable group of films was produced by the company during that time. While I had always appreciated and admired the significance of Easy Rider, the company's breakout success, it was really the comparatively low-key, painfully honest and still-relevant Five Easy Pieces, which impressed me most deeply and made me pay close attention to the films produced by the company.
The King of Marvin Gardens re-unites director Bob Rafelson with star Jack Nicholson, though it is not merely a follow-up to Five Easy Pieces. Set against the backdrop of a decaying Atlantic City, Nicholson plays David Staebler, an intellectual late-night talk radio host, who comes to the boardwalk to help out his brother Jason (Bruce Dern), recently released from jail and trying to get his latest property development venture off the ground while dealing with difficult relationships with the women in his life (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson) and the local crime racket with whom he is involved. Nicholson's David is a quiet but sharp observer, fiercely loyal to his brother despite his misguided efforts. He seems to view himself as somewhat aloof, perhaps using his role as radio host to distance himself from the situations and people around him, but he nevertheless proves himself willing to step up and take action when circumstances call for it.
Nicholson's performance is a revelation -- restrained and burning with a quiet intensity, working in perfect synergy with the similarly restrained but intense style that Rafelson brings to the film. Rafelson brilliantly uses the decaying boardwalk, once a symbol for opportunity and wealth, and now run-down with corruption, as a metaphor for America.