Skip to main content

That’s your problem, kid. You don’t know who you’re kidding.

The Two Jakes
(1990)

(SPOILERS) Or Jake and the Fatman: Jake is the Fatman. The Jake in question being one private investigator JJ Gittes, now on his way to occupying a suit of Orson Welles proportions. Chinatown’s belated sequel, set eleven years later, underwent a succession of production woes such that, by the time it landed, audiences weren’t even willing to take a sniff; it opened in a paltry seventh place in early August 1990 (Flatliners taking the top spot) and was out of the Top 10 the following week. Equally long-awaited sequel The Godfather Part III opened at the end of the same year, also to mixed reviews, but it still managed to make a relative success of itself. Perhaps Chinatown’s time had passed, or hadn’t come round again? Perhaps the title plain sucked.

Although, you’d have hoped audiences weren’t quite so superficial. The Two Jakes isn’t some neglected classic, but it’s an entertaining and intermittently engaging movie in its own unremarkable way. Its problems are much more down to Robert Towne the screenwriter than Jack Nicholson the director (his third such outing). Although, Jack Nicholson the actor must take a degree of flak, since Gittes is as much Daryl Van Horne as he is JJ (speaking of The Witches of Eastwick, that’s probably about the last point I’d accept a mere decade having elapsed between cases; Gittes looks like a well-fed twenty years have passed since we last saw him).

One of IMDB’s trivia points suggests tubby Jake was a character choice on Nicholson’s part, but Vilmos Zsigmond’s comments claim anything but (“I had to cover up all that weight and use tricks to hide the red in his eyes”. That and slimming black). An earlier attempt to make The Two Jakes in 1985, with Towne as director and Robert Evans as Jake Berman, has been much documented, and if there’s a key lesson there, one might suggest it was Nicholson’s loyalty and failure to identify at the outset that neither was suited to either role. Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye omits the various attempts to get the picture running again prior to the one we got, but it seems Towne was attempting to kickstart one with Dino DeLaurentis producing, Harrison Ford as JJ and Roy Scheider as Jake at one point. Then there was the prospect of a Cannon picture, with Nicholson, Towne, Evans and Scheider (Evans as producer nixed it). At various times, there were also mutterings about John Huston, Mike Nichols, Bernardo Bertolucci and Roman Polanski as potential director.

It’s been suggested Nicholson taking the reins was ultimately less about a yen for artistic expression than the ongoing lawsuits from the earlier failed attempt. Views of his work here have varied; I’d say his eye for a visual is often keen, but his ability to channel that into a storytelling whole is much more variable. Towne “abandoned” the project when it was only eighty-percent complete, and while Polanski’s razor-sharp approach may have hacked through the extraneous screenplay foliage to get to the basics, Jack often gets side-tracked by the same. Pauline Kael was blunt: “as the director, Nicholson doesn’t give the characters any snap and he doesn’t build the scenes; it’s as if he were scratching his head every time the camera got turned on”.

But Nicholson tells it that Billy Wilder was impressed with the movie, and Polanski avowed the quality of his direction, clearly feeling Towne’s source material was mainly to blame: “The film is extremely difficult to follow. Furthermore, each time you get hooked on a story and you invest your emotions in some kind of sequence, it's abruptly cut and switched to something new. It's jolting. He loses you every few minutes, But the acting, the camera work, the staging of sequences is quite admirable”.

Nicholson provided a voiceover "less to propel narrative than to establish a unifying voice and tone". Which is ironic, given Polanski expressly dispensed with one for Chinatown. Brian Case of Time Out felt the movie was “often pretty good and never less than intriguing”. However, “the problem is with the plot” isn’t really that it’s dense, so much as it’s shapeless. The Two Jakes never really builds to any peak moment of revelation, villainy or character progression. Keitel is fine as Jake, but he’s only fine, amenable rather than imposing or menacing (added to which, his chief hood Rubén Blades also lacks a certain something). You don’t ever think JJ’s in any real danger from these guys, who are in the business of second-tier real estate anyway; the “Big Bad” equivalent to Chinatown’s Cross would be charming oil man Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth), but he’s tangential, a part of the puzzle that never pulls into focus.

Towne also likely made a fundamental error in returning to the events of the original (such refusal to tell a wholly new story in a sequel can also be found in future-noir Blade Runner 2049). This is, after all, a genre that invites new and standalone stories, but Towne hinges the plot yet again on a reveal concerning the identity of a femme fatale (Meg Tilly’s Kitty Berman is Katherine Mulray). Worse, going there proves of little real consequence, so The Two Jakes cheapens itself, unnecessarily feeding off the corpse of Chinatown. We haven’t spent sufficient time with Kitty (serviceably performed by an adenoidal Meg Tilly) for her secret to make much impact; likewise, Lillian Bodine (Madeleine Stowe) is only of particular note for the implied off-screen rude sex with JJ. Jake’s reproving “You know something, Jake. You might think you know what’s going on around here, but you don’t” has no real import when laid next to Cross’s similar warning.

While Zsigmond lends the picture a rich veneer, there’s a sense of unevenness too. I never really believe in Tilly and Stowe as femme fatales, not in the way I did Faye Dunaway. Perhaps it’s partly the evident dyed hair, but neither seems like they “live” in the period. Jack delivers some nice visual flourishes (the gas explosion barrelling Gittes into the air) but also some hacky ones (the sequence in which he overpowers David Keith’s Loach – son of the original’s Loach – at gunpoint: “Suck it!”) Eli Wallach – also turning up in The Godfather Part III – is good value, but Frederic Forrest barely gets a look in. Returning faces include James Hong, Perry Lopez and Joe Mantell (and Allan Warnick, the original’s snooty clerk), but the sense of continuity isn’t really there, so the emphasis on past events lacks potency.

Nevertheless, there’s something very accessible about this conjured world, for all the deficiencies. It’s nice to see Jack in this milieu, however puffy he may be. There’s attention to detail and flurries of humour (accused of having fondled an officer’s privates in the men’s room, JJ responds “How was I?”) There’s a prevailing sense The Two Jakes managed to slip out there, barely noticed, and that, if it’s no Chinatown, it’s a sufficiently engaging ticket on its own terms. Thematically, it kind of misses the wood for the trees, intently substituting big business for big business (water for oil) without having anything substantial to say about it, and pulling back (to meditate on the past) rather than pushing on and upward when it comes to corruption. Perhaps the latter was a case of Towne retreating from the Polanski worldview he didn’t wholly endorse: thus, romanticism over outright nihilism.

In which case, it may be as well Gittes v Gittes never happened (beyond even the box-office failure, Towne and Nicholson had mutually burned their bridges). Set in 1959, it would have seen JJ getting sued for divorce and losing most of his business (Towne was inspired by his own domestic situation), in tandem with a company attempting to buy up public transportation so as to replace it with freeways. Towne never got very far with the proposal (unsurprisingly). It sounds like Gittes v Gittes would have needed something extra dramatically – much as The Two Jakes needed something extra dramatically – to imbue the proceedings with a frisson of urgency. I do like The Two Jakes, but it’s so unprepossessing, it’s easy to forget I like it.



Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…