The Two Jakes is a failure on two different fronts (three, if you believe the weekend box office figures that show it was only the seventh biggest draw in its opening weekend). It fails as a sequel to Chinatown, and it fails as an independent movie. People who haven't seen Chinatown (or don't remember it) won't understand much of what's going on, while people who have will probably judge The Two Jakes harshly in comparison. Both groups are liable to find it overlong and slow.
Jake Gittes, the private investigator from Chinatown, is back, with World War II under his belt and success in his profession that approaches respectability. But he's still haunted by the ghosts of his past. When a seemingly routine divorce case explodes in his face, the past rushes in to envelop him. He's faced with the challenge of solving his immediate problems while simultaneously reconciling with the past. Of course, the past and the present prove to be inextricably linked.
Jack Nicholson returns as Jake Gittes, and also directs the film. In addition, he did some rewriting of Robert Towne's script; at the minimum, the narration is Nicholson's. He proves himself an excellent actor, a reasonable writer, and a pedestrian director. Gittes is a very finely delineated character, with great depths and complexities. Nicholson builds the character not just with his dialog, but with his expressions, his gestures, his costumes, and his surroundings. Nicholson's performance is one of the best of the year, and one reason to see The Two Jakes.
The script is not such a good reason. Towne has not provided as strong a story for The Two Jakes as he did for Chinatown, nor are the supporting characters as interesting. Towne did write some good lines, and decent scenes, but failed in terms of the overall script. He relies rather heavily on echoing Chinatown - two thugs menace Jake, there's an elderly mysterious rich man, changes of land titles figure heavily in the plot. The idea was probably to set up resonances in the minds of both Gittes and the audience, but it doesn't work. The mystery isn't good enough, either. We may not guess everything that's going on, but we don't care enough about the resolution. The narration added by Nicholson works reasonably well, showing how completely Nicholson has absorbed the character of Gittes.
Chinatown had as its roots the politics and business of water in Los Angeles in the thirties. The Two Jakes attempts to build itself around the politics and business of oil in Los Angeles in the late forties. But oil does not permeate the atmosphere of the film in the same way water did in Chinatown. In that film, drought brought the importance of water to the forefront. The first film also used water visually in a way that The Two Jakes fails to use oil. Oil wells are scattered all around, and everyone talks about how rich and important oil men are, but the film does not demonstrate, in its plot or its visuals, how oil was the lifeblood of Los Angeles in this period.
The Two Jakes also fails to develop the atmosphere of Chinatown. In Chinatown, corruption was present everywhere, a miasma-like precursor to Los Angeles smog. The entire city seemed entwined in a web of venality and evil. Shadowy lighting, moody music, eccentric characters, and clever camera movement created a unique feel for the film. The Two Jakes is lacking that feel. It isn't the same sort of film at all. Vilmos Zgismond, the cinematographer, creates some very beautiful shots reminiscent of the first film, but Nicholson the director does not show the visual imagination that Roman Polanski brought to Chinatown. Surprisingly, he doesn't have the vicious snap that Polanski did. There's no moment in The Two Jakes that has the same punch as the scene in Chinatown where the two hoods slashed Jake Gittes' nose. That scene showed the immediate nastiness of violence in a way that dozens of stunt men being jerked backwards by simulated gunshots does not, and Polanski was able to use it to wake up the audience to the possibility that bad things might really happen to people they cared about. Nicholson provides no similar moment in The Two Jakes that makes dangers real to the audience.
One element Nicholson does try to reproduce is the careful pacing of Polanski's film. Polanski knows how to take his time, and paced Chinatown very deliberately. Nicholson clearly saw that Polanski did this, but doesn't seem able to copy the style successfully. Instead of drawing the viewers in with a lazy seductiveness, the pacing of The Two Jakes bores them. Nicholson's best directorial moments in the film come when he is going for an entirely different style, one that verges on the surrealistic and slapstick. It might be going too far to suggest that The Two Jakes demonstrates that Nicholson can't direct, but he surely can't imitate Roman Polanski very well.
The Two Jakes does have some strengths. As mentioned, Nicholson's performance is excellent as is the cinematography. The period detail is nicely presented, as well, giving the film a beautiful look. The supporting cast is filled with fine actors doing good work, though in some cases they have far too little to work with. Eli Wallach, Frederic Forrest, and Richard Farnsworth simply don't have the screentime or material to make a strong impression. Meg Tilly provides her usual strong performance, Harvey Keitel is good as the second Jake of the title, and Ruben Blades does a nice turn as a gangster. David Keith is suitably vicious as a rotten cop, and Tom Waits has an unbilled scene as the other half of Keith's Mutt and Jeff routine. By and large, however, the supporting roles seem underwritten, or at least underrepresented in the finished film.
The overall failure of The Two Jakes is a pity, because, for once, someone attempted a sequel that would expand and richen the themes of the original film, and an original film that had serious intentions, at that. The only similar examples that spring to mind are The Godfather II (a definite success) and The Exorcist II (a stupendous failure). The Two Jakes is decidedly not a ripoff of Chinatown. It has genuine artistic intentions - it's about something, and wants to reach audiences in a way beyond the merely visceral. From the title, to the basic strings of the plot, to the characters and their motivations, Nicholson and Towne want us to think and feel. Among other things, The Two Jakes is about love, loyalty, the inescapable influences of the past, and redemption. Unfortunately, the film just doesn't work. While far from a disaster, The Two Jakes is much too near a disappointment.
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