The King of Marvin Gardens ★★½

This was rather disappointing -- a far less sophisticated rehash of Five Easy Pieces with the same director and lead actor, unfortunately cluttered here by the presence of Bruce Dern as radio personality Jack Nicholson's screwed up scam-artist brother. What should be an absorbing dynamic leads to a series of disconnected scenes that are stilted and curiously muted. It's beautifully photographed by Laszlo Kovacs and Nicholson's performance is admirably restrained -- his monologues, especially the one that opens the film, are a highlight -- but it takes low-key to such a Robert Altman-like extreme that it quickly grows dull and ineffective. Not even Ellen Burstyn doing her best to take over the Karen Black role from Pieces can rescue it; the broadness of her performance is badly mismatched with the lethargy in the rest of the film, and the same goes for the sudden injection of "plot" she initiates at the finale, which is a violation from which the film's carefully maintained tone cannot recover.

Having now watched everything in the BBS box, I must admit that its contents were far from what I hoped. Going in I knew that I loved Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show and hated Easy Rider, and I knew I dig the Monkees, but not one of the remaining films surprised or fascinated me in the same way those two did. (Head came closest, and I did like Drive, He Said.) The only shock was that a film as awful as A Safe Place could manage to be released by Columbia Pictures at all. There's no question that the production company marked a very specific, creatively fruitful place and time and it's hard not to lament a time when a company could get relative freedom from a studio to make movies this unconventional... but "unconventional" doesn't necessary equate to "inspired," and I have a hard time believing anyone could watch the films included in the set and fail to conclude that Pieces and especially Picture Show are a hell of a cut above, to an almost comical extent.

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