David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) is relating a story from his past about why he refuses to eat fish anymore, and has not done so since he was a child. His grandfather used to insist on it at the end of every week, even though he would choke on the bones and David and his brother Jason (Bruce Dern) would have to run to the kitchen to fetch a slice of bread to help the old man swallow. But one mealtime, they dawdled, and grandfather succumbed... Then David has to wrap up his late night radio show as the producer is giving him a signal, whereupon he returns home in a mood.
To be greeted by his grandfather (Charles LaVine) who has been listening to the show and mocks his grandson's invention based on his experiences. But is there a kernel of truth to what he says, as we are supposed to judge from that arresting beginning, which for a good few minutes simply features a closeup on Nicholson's face in the dark as he edgily delivers his monologue? The answer to that passed many audiences by at the time, as the general reaction to The King of Marvin Gardens was "not as good as Five Easy Pieces" - the previous Nicholson and Bob Rafelson collaboration, which given that was one of the finest entries in the seventies American New Wave, should have been forgivable.
That said, here was a film that did not give up its secrets gladly, and you could be mistaken for thinking that it was a ramble about nothing in particular to a arbitrarily tragic conclusion, which was the opinion of even some of Nicholson's biggest fans, never mind Rafelson's and Dern's. Yet it was one of those efforts which rewarded a second try, as if it was still difficult to fathom what screenwriter Jacob Brackman (one of only two screenplays he ever had produced) was getting at, then you could at least appreciate a work which when it was not being subtly off-kilter was unmistakably melancholic about a very strange sibling relationship, brought out by two low key but excellent performances from Nicholson and Dern.
They might not have convinced much as brothers - there was little physical resemblance never mind personality similarities, but they do have a bond, though you could argue that was less engendered by the script and more by the fact that these two stars had emerged from the same Roger Corman filmmaking background and were very good friends. Still, that acknowledgement of one another's styles was useful when introverted David feels uneasy around extroverted Jason, and then the other way when they admit they have a lot of brotherly love for each other, not that David can be much help when he gets Jason out of prison and becomes mixed up with his get rich quick scheme in Atlantic City at the winter off-season.
Mind you, by the look of the place every season was off season at the time this was filmed, a few years before the resort was renovated, a perfect match for the air of hopeless optimism in the face of impending ruin which Dern adroitly conveys. Making this all the more curious were Jason's companions, who by and by David works out are stepmother Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and stepdaughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson who sadly died shortly after this, her sole star turn), and not only that but they are quite happy to fund their lifestyle with prostitution. They are also fooling themselves with dreams outwith their grasp (they both think Jessica is Miss America material), but their fragility will prove the downfall of all four main characters. Worth mentioning was Scatman Crothers as the local gangster David has got involved with, an excellent performance in a movie packed with them, if not wholly apparent on the surface. If finally this puzzled more than it satisfied, it did haunt the memory perhaps for that reason.