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

The Two Jakes

(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.

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