In The Two Jakes, Jack Nicholson returns to the role of Los Angeles private eye Jake Gittes, and he looks…weary. This long-delayed sequel to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is set in 1948, 11 years after the first film. Jake, by all appearances, has done well for himself. He still specializes in gathering evidence of extramarital hanky-panky, only now, amid the postwar recreational fervor, business is booming. Jake works out of an Art Deco office building that he owns, he belongs to a posh country club, and he has a foxy young fiancee (whom he mostly ignores). If not exactly respectable, he has become an institution, the guy everyone counts on to get the dirt.
As Nicholson plays him, Jake is a success — comfortably jaded, a man who lives off sin and enjoys it — yet he’s also sunk in torpor. Jake’s face is starting to melt into his chest, and he doesn’t smile much. He’s a middle-aged codger too cynical to have a mid-life crisis. At one point, he’s about to have sex with a beautiful young woman (Madeleine Stowe) who’s involved in the murder case he’s investigating. Ravenously excited, she starts tearing at his shirt, but Jake tells her to back off. Nicholson plays the scene with a casual, I’m-gettin’-too-old-for-this-stuff blahness that’s archly hilarious.
Yet for much of the movie, the idea of Jake as an old pro just going through the motions is a mixed blessing. The Two Jakes is competent and watchable, but, like Nicholson’s performance, it often seems dilapidated. Nicholson, who directed the picture himself, isn’t able to make Los Angeles a veritable character in the film the way it was in Chinatown. (That movie gave you a sense of decay lingering in the California haze.) At the same time, The Two Jakes just about falls over itself making somber references to The Past. The movie is so busy establishing ”parallels” with the first film that it never takes the risks to discover a domain of its own.
Chinatown was the great conspiracy movie of its era. In the wake of Watergate, dozens of other films gave us the satisfaction of seeing corruption unveiled (and defeated), but Polanski’s brilliantly perverse thriller went further than any of them in suggesting that cover-up (political, financial, personal) had become the condition of our lives. Working from an incomparable script by Robert Towne, Polanski heightened and transcended the romantic paranoia of Hollywood detective movies. Chinatown said that high-level corruption rots everyone’s soul, even those who — like most of us — aren’t powerful enough to have actual contact with it.
The water-diversion conspiracies in Chinatown had the quality of revelation. The idea that those in power would stoop to anything to increase their fortunes hit harder in the ’70s; today, it sounds like yesterday’s papers. I don’t want to give away much of the sequel’s plot. Suffice to say that it involves oil this time, and that the central relationship is between Gittes and a real estate agent named Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel), who is selling houses in one of the newly developed subdivisions of the San Fernando Valley. Berman, who had hired Gittes to spy on his wife (Meg Tilly), learns that she has been sleeping with his partner. He kills the guy in a jealous rage (but jealousy may not have been the true motivation).
In a nod to the John Huston character in Chinatown, there’s an encounter with yet another white-haired evil-capitalist patriarch (nicely played by Richard Farnsworth). And there are scenes in which Gittes finally comes face to face with the incest-bred daughter of Evelyn Mulwray — though wouldn’t he already know who she was? The script, another Towne original, appears to have been built around the ambivalent fraternal bond between Gittes and Berman. Yet the relationship between the two Jakes never comes into focus. The Two Jakes feels muffled, without the undercurrents of longing and despair that made Chinatown memorable. This one is more like an earnest series of footnotes. B-