For Nicholson, Better Late Than Never
J.J. "Jake" Gittes, the chain-smoking private detective made famous by Jack Nicholson in the 1974 classic China-town, is walking the streets of Los Angeles again, but not without haunts. As he tells himself repeatedly in the new film, The Two Jakes, the past is something every person must confront at one time or another. It is a tortuous process, Gittes realizes, which requires treading a very thin line. "I don't want to live in the past," he says, "I just don't want to lose it."
The Two Jokes
Directed by Jack Nicholson
Produced by Robert Evans
Written by Robert Towne
Both Gittes and The Two Jakes successfully navigate that line. The Two Jakes is a wonderful film, a rich tale about the past, that most frustrating and elusive element of human life. The success of The Two Jakes is made all the more impressive considering the difficulty of creating a tenable sequel to the earlier, complex Academy Awardwinning Roman Polanski film.
That difficulty is reflected in the 16 years required to created The Two Jakes. Originally scheduled for release in the mid-80s, the film became mired in disagreements between three of four of Chinatown's creative forces. Producer Robert Evans, screen writer Robert Towne, and Nicholson. (Polanski, according to Nicholson, was not involved in the process, partly because of cost overruns). When The Two Jakes finally made it to production, Nicholson had assumed the directing responsibilites. In addition, the freshman director took it upon himself to rewrite parts of the script as he went along.
The Two Jakes is set in 1948 post-war Los Angeles. Eleven years have passed since the fateful events of Chinatown which shaped Gittes' life. Those events have a crucial impact on the events of this current film, and having seen Chinatown makes seeing The Two Jakes much richer.
Chinatown's powerful, bewildering plot came to a conclusion with Gittes failing to protect his lover Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her daughter/sister Katherine (Belinda Palmer) from corrupt millionare Noah Cross (John Huston). Katherine was the teenage product of the incestuous union of Evelyn and Cross, who was her father. While attempting to drive away from her pursuers, police working for Cross accidentally shot Evelyn Mulwray in the head. The absolutely hysterical Katherine was pulled from the car as Gittes, stunned by the loss of the woman he loved, looked on helplessly.
Gittes' haunting memories are revived while working on a case for the film's other Jake, real estate developer Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel). Gittes is hired to procure evidence to prove that Berman's wife, Kitty (Meg Tilly) is having an affair. Gittes taps a motel room and arranges to have Berman confront his wife in bed with her lover.
But just as in Chinatown, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. When Berman arrives, he immediately shoots and kills Kitty's lover, who turns out to be his business partner. Gittes is promplty sued by Berman's partner's wife, Mrs. Bodine (Madeline Stowe), who claims that he was negligent in allowing her husband to be killed. Attempting to exonerate himself, Gittes analyzes the wiretap he made and is amazed to hear the name Katherine Mulwray mentioned.
In Chinatown, Gittes, normally able to go about his business of prying into people's private lives wihout any compunction, becomes a man possessed after falling in love with Evelyn Mulwray. Similarly, Gittes, haunted by his love for Evelyn and his inability to grant her last wish--that her daughter be protected and taken care of--becomes consumed with finding Katherine in The Two Jakes.
To say that the plot is complicated is a severe understatment. Refusing to cater to the audience's lowest common denominator, The Two Jakes forces the viewer to pay very close attention while the plot unfolds onscreen. Towne returns to his former scripting glory (with a little bit of help from Nicholson) after sinking to an all-time low with the recently released Days of Thunder. The Two Jakes is a great detective story, with all the clues, (intelligent) action, and philosophical narrative voice overs that accompanies the best in the genre. But more than that, the film is about persons and their personalities.
The Two Jakes is no simple detective thriller whereby the case, however complicated, is solved by bizzare clues or outrageous coinicidence. The clues in this film (there is a bewildering number of them) becoming increasingly inconsequential as the plot progresses. What waxes important are the central characters: their lives and their complex, intimate psychological motivations.
Gittes tells himself that sometimes the biggest clues are the ones that were right on front of your face all along. The Two Jakes dervies its power from Gittes' introspection. He comes closer to finding the solution to the case--and his own peace as well--when he is able to peer inside Berman and find himself. This film is not called The Two Jakes for nothing; Gittes and Berman share more than the same nickname.
Films that depend on strong personalities, as opposed to strong language and strong biceps, require talented actors. Nicholson easily meets those requirements. His portrayal of Jake Gittes is superb. Nicholson's screen presence is second to none, and The Two Jakes, with good reason, draws heavily upon it. The rest of the cast, particularly Stowe and Keitel, perform well under Nicholson's strong direction. The only performance that may appear a bit off center is Tilly's, but considering the cirumstances of Kitty Berman's life, it might be expected.
The Two Jakes is an excellent film, easily the best of the summer releases. Like every truly great film, it is an insightful commentary on the human condition. The power of the past, and how the commitments made their carry a timeless moral weight, is the subject of the film's intelligent inquiry. Any viewer, especially one with a thoughtful appreciation of the complexities of Chinatown, cannot help but be impressed with Nicholson's The Two Jakes.