American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Bob Rafelson's "The King of Marvin Gardens" is a perversely satisfying movie, it works after going out of its way not to, and a very eccentric one. It backs into its real subject in much the same way that "Five Easy Pieces", Rafelson's previous film, did. Only after it's over do some of its scenes and moments fall into place; for much of the way we've been disoriented and the story has been suspended somewhere in midair. As someone wrote about a totally dissimilar movie, Paul Morrissey's "Trash", it's the kind of film you want to walk out of, and then when it's over you want to see it again.
The movie opens and closes with autobiographical monologues being delivered by an all-night talk jockey (Jack Nicholson) into the loneliness of the FM airwaves. He works in a darkened studio, stopping sometimes to search for words, and it's evident that his broadcasts tear something loose from deep inside. It's possible, indeed, that he says more on the radio (or into his tape recorder) in this movie than he ever gets around to saying in the actual situations he finds himself in. He's tentative, unsure, private. His radio fantasies often involve his brother, Jason (Bruce Dern), who lives in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and does mysterious but glorious things there. After a long silence, Jason himself calls his brother and tells him to hustle down to Atlantic City because there are big deals cooking. They're going to buy an island near Hawaii and develop it into a resort. Sure.
Most of the movie takes place in Atlantic City, where the metaphor of a Monopoly game is employed a little too persistently, I thought. There's the Boardwalk, of course, and Marvin Gardens itself; but there are also Jason's attempts to buy a hotel, and the fact that he's in jail when we first meet him. This stuff is worked in quietly enough by Jacob Brackman's script, however, that it doesn't really distract.
Jason is living with a blonde on the far side of the hill (Ellen Burstyn) and her stepdaughter, a blonde coming up fast on this side (Julia Anne Robinson). A great deal of the movie is about the unacknowledged sexual competition between the two women, but this (like a few other things) becomes important only gradually. Most of the action seems to involve a disagreement between Jason, who turns out to be a minor hood, and the mysterious Lewis, who is the black rackets boss and moneyman in town. Jason's deals are based on reckless confidence in Lewis's money, and Lewis isn't going along.