Two years after his star-making role in Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson reunited with director Bob Rafelson for this gritty story of small-time losers and big-time dreamers. Dern co-stars as Nicholson's older brother, a scam artist who's all style and no substance, and Burstyn excels as an aging beauty who has prostituted herself for an elusive shot at happiness.
Three Card Monte
- The King of Marvin Gardens review by Count Otto Black
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You rated this film: 3
As you might expect of a film written by, directed by and starring many of the team responsible for "Five Easy Pieces", this is an acutely observed character study of people who aren't altogether happy with their lives but don't quite know what to do about it. Jack Nicholson is surprisingly restrained as the quiet, thoughtful, introvert dominated by his larger-than-life con-man brother, played by Bruce Dern (did he ever play anyone trustworthy?) in the kind of rôle that would automatically have gone to Nicholson later in his career, though Dern's excellent as the petty crook whose dreams of greatness, as we start to realize before we've even met him, are always going to flop because his self-confidence is infinitely greater than his actual ability to pull off these grandiose schemes. Ellen Burstyn is also perfectly cast as a very brittle lady who lives in terror of the erosion of her good looks by the inevitable passage of time, and Atlantic City itself is a major character, constantly reminding us that behind its gently decaying facades, its vibrant, swinging heyday happened a long time ago, and was maybe never quite real even then. Basically, this is the story of people who missed the boat and will always miss it, but desperately need to pretend otherwise.
These are the film's strengths. Its weakness is that since its main characters are delusional losers, they have no chance whatsoever of accomplishing anything, and this becomes apparent very quickly. The only competent character makes little more than a cameo appearance, and never truly reveals his motives because there's no reason at all why he should bother to tell these irrelevant schmucks what's really going on. It's not even entirely certain that the "kingdom" Bruce Dern's character has pinned all his hopes on actually exists as a physically real place. So for most of the film, we're watching several people who are obviously doomed to be at best very disappointed indeed fool themselves in ways that wouldn't convince anyone else, while the city around them and most of its population quietly succumb to senility.
Although it's superbly observed and written, in terms of "action" there isn't very much of any kind. As for Anton Chekov's famous maxim that if you show the audience a gun in act one, you really need to fire it in act two, this film suffers from an astonishingly bad case of taking it far too literally. That very distinctive-looking pistol which crops up constantly and is handled by just about everyone might as well be equipped with a flashing red neon sign reading "when I go bang it's going to really, really matter", and there were times when I wished someone would pull the trigger so that we could move on to a bit where something happens. Overall, this a well-crafted, well-acted and extremely clever film which ultimately fails to be all that entertaining.