The Two Jakes should never have been released — at least not in movie theaters. Any sequel that leans as heavily on an original as this film leans on Chinatown doesn’t stand a chance on its own. But on video, where it can be rented as the second half of an intriguing and entertaining home-video double bill, Jakes begins to make sense. To watch this Nicholson-directed sequel is to be reminded that Chinatown is one of the finest movies ever made, period. And to revisit Chinatown is to recognize everything The Two Jakes is attempting to live down.
On the surface, Chinatown might seem like just another of the cynical detective-film homages churned out by the busload in the ’70s and early ’80s. Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes is a direct descendant of Bogart’s tough, righteous private eyes, and the Los Angeles he strides through is eerie in its precise re-creation of 1937. But Chinatown is rich with odd elements that today could be called Lynchian. There’s the amusing perversity of a movie in which the hero wears a disfiguring bandage on his nose for half of its running time. And in Faye Dunaway’s tormented Evelyn Mulwray and John Huston’s unimaginably corrupt Noah Cross, there is tragedy more horrifying than audiences were prepared for at the time.
Clearly, Chinatown belongs to Roman Polanski. The director pruned Robert Towne’s dialogue mercilessly, exchanging the script’s relatively upbeat ending (Evelyn kills her father and goes to jail, but Katherine, the daughter of their incestuous union, escapes) for something much darker. Even Nicholson is reined in: Gittes isn’t one of the star’s loose-cannon crowd pleasers but a sleek, ultimately naive emissary into the uncharted moral territory represented by the title.
Polanski’s vision is serious, for all the movie’s stylish wit. Chinatown is a rare example of shallow Hollywood story conventions crumbling in the face of jet-black East European pessimism. Remember that Polanski lost his mother at Auschwitz and was himself target practice for a playful gang of Nazis; at 16 he was almost killed, for no reason, by a passing madman; and in 1969 his pregnant wife was butchered by the followers of Charles Manson. There can be little comfort for such a man, and Chinatown’s finale offers none to its audience. Its bleakness would be merely trendy (as it is in many movies with bum-out endings) if it didn’t cut so deeply.
Like the little brother of a high school football star, The Two Jakes knows it can’t compete with blatant brilliance, so it strikes out in different directions. It’s 1948, and our hero is now prosperous, thick around the middle, and slightly complacent-a mirror of the postwar U.S. (and Nicholson himself). Then a routine marital investigation escalates: Real estate mogul Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) shoots his partner in a jealous rage, the cops and the mob want Gittes’ wire recording of the murder, and the name Katherine Mulwray starts popping up all over. It looks as though Jake will be looking into the corrupted heart of darkness again.
That never happens. It’s not supposed to, apparently. The Two Jakes tries to replace Polanski’s ironies with the pleasures of ambiguity. Did Berman, the other Jake, kill his partner over a woman or to get his share of the business? Is oil millionaire Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth) behind everything the way Noah Cross was in Chinatown? I’ll save you some trouble: You never actually find out. It’s clear now that Chinatown’s streamlined, Oscar-winning script was a blip in Robert Towne’s career, that he prefers the pig-pile plotting of this film and his own Tequila Sunrise. The Two Jakes is a shaggy-dog thriller: It’s stuffed with red herrings, chatty dialogue, and a mystery woman (Meg Tilly) who’s not much of a mystery.
Towne was set to direct Jakes at one point, and perhaps he could have made it into the picaresque human comedy he was obviously aiming for. Nicholson, unfortunately, lets the film fall into shambling, well-produced clutter. Where Chinatown had incredible forward momentum — there’s not a frame of fat in it — Jakes drifts and goes nowhere. Nicholson seems tired as an actor, as well. True, The Two Jakes is partially about a hero coping with the indignities of middle age, but the star wears the same numb expression throughout, as if he’d lost his place in the script.
Maybe he was looking for something that just isn’t there. There are echoes of Chinatown strewn throughout Jakes, like bread crumbs that might lead back home. Both films open on husbands groaning over their wives’ infidelities. Props and characters from the first movie reappear in the second. These are just mocking dead ends, though. By the final scenes, when one Jake helps the other cover up a crucial fact from his wife, the difference between the two movies couldn’t be more clear. Chinatown is about peeling away layers of lies and propriety to stare straight into the abyss. The message of The Two Jakes, on the other hand, is that some lies are necessary. There’s truth to that, of course. It’s just not especially interesting. Chinatown: A+ The Two Jakes: C-