Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Two Jakes (1990)

It is one of the most famous last lines in all of the movies. Jack Nicholson's private eye J.J. "Jake" Gittes watches helplessly as his lover and client is murdered by her father and is pulled away from the crime scene by his partners. "Forget it, Jake," one warns. "It's Chinatown." Sixteen years later, we find Gittes again and we learn how ironic those words were. Try as he might, pretend as he might, Gittes can't forget what happened in Chinatown. The way it burrows its way into his latest case, it seems like Chinatown doesn't want him to forget either.

As the altogether wonderful and frightfully underappreciated sequel The Two Jakes begins, our hero is older, fatter, balder, richer and seemingly happier. But of course, in the sun-stained noir world that writer Robert Towne invented in 1974's Chinatown and continued in 1990's The Two Jakes, looks are always deceiving. Gittes is currently working a seemingly inconsequential case, about a land developer named Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) who suspects his wife is unfaithful. In situations like these, Gittes typically catches the adulterous spouse in the act, presents his client with the evidence, and then helps stage a confrontation that can be used as evidence in divorce proceedings. Only this time there's a hitch: Berman somehow sneaks a gun into the hotel room with him and murders his wife's lover right in front of Gittes. Then another curveball: the lover is actually Berman's partner on a massive housing development. Was this a crime of passion or premeditated murder?

We sense we know where Towne's story, directed with surprisingly ability by Nicholson himself, is going but the audience is thrown for a loop once more when Gittes, reviewing the audio recording he'd made of the murder suddenly hears a name from his past, Katherine Mulray, his dead lover's daughter, who Gittes promised to protect years earlier but lost touch with. Until this moment, Nicholson has played Gittes much like an older, wiser version of the man we saw in Chinatown: good at his job, a bit of a wiseacre. But that name hits him like a kick in the groin.

From there on, the movie becomes two divergent but carefully connected threads: Gittes' investigation into the Berman shooting (and his own attempts to keep himself from being arrested as an accessory to murder) and a more personal look into his own past. Many supporting characters and even a few extras reprise their roles from Chinatown. The Two Jakes is a totally unnecessarily sequel until you actually watch it, at which point it becomes the answer to a question you only half-heard asked.

I can understand why the film was a flop with audiences and critics in 1990. Apparently, it was an infamously troubled production: Towne was originally slated to direct but quit the project over creative differences with Nicholson and producer Robert Evans, who was apparently dead-set on playing the Keitel role himself. The movie was something like seven years in development and production and to film critics who are already skeptical about a sequel to one of the most beloved Hollywood movies ever made that's like tossing chum into shark-infested waters.

It's almost twenty years later and all that stuff has faded into the past; what remains is a surprisingly powerful movie. Initially, I was a bit turned off by Jack's appearance: wearing basically the same sorts of suits, hats, and glasses he had as a man sixteen years earlier he looks sort of like a middle-aged dude who hasn't realized it's sort of pathetic to keep dressing like he did when he was in his twenties. He's the old man in the club, as Chris Rock put it once. It struck a sort of Blues Brothers 2000 chord, which is never a good thing. Then it occured to me that Gittes' clothes are an outward manifestation of his state of mind: he hasn't moved on from that terrible night in Chinatown, and so he keeps living in the past, keeps dressing like his younger self.

Apparently, The Two Jakes was actually the second film of a proposed Gittes trilogy: the strife between writer, star, and producer kept the third installment, tentatively titled Cloverleaf, from getting produced. But the gap between The Two Jakes and Chinatown is only a year shorter than the gap between The Two Jakes and today: in other words its not too late to give the character a proper send-off and if Jack doesn't want to slip into the role one more time, Towne should turn the screenplay into a novel. It's not as famous as "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown," but the last line of The Two Jakes is a memorable one as well. "It never goes away," Gittes says, and after The Two Jakes I was glad to see that it doesn't.


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