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The Two Jakes Reviews

It may have been expecting too much for THE TWO JAKES to have been a film on the high order of its predecessor, CHINATOWN. But this sequel has more going against it than having to follow in the footsteps of that brilliant film--surely one of the best movies of the past 20 years, possibly one of the finest films of all time. Where the original had the impeccable structure and fearsome momentum of a classical tragedy, the sequel is a loose, meandering, and murky affair that isn't even particularly good on its own, comparatively modest terms. Set in post-WW II Los Angeles, THE TWO JAKES begins, as CHINATOWN did, in the office of Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a private eye who specializes in divorce cases. Gittes is busy coaching a client, the title's other Jake, Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel). Having gathered evidence that Berman's wife, Kitty (Meg Tilly), is having an affair, Gittes instructs Berman to walk in on his wife and her lover during one of their afternoon motel trysts. In the next room, Gittes records the staged confrontation. But the operation goes horribly wrong when Berman, in an apparent jealous rage, deviates from Gittes' "script" by killing his wife's lover. It seems to be an open-and-shut case of temporary insanity, but as was the case in CHINATOWN, nothing is quite what it seems here. Kitty's lover is also Berman's partner in a housing development in the San Fernando Valley. For business reasons, the partner's will excludes his wife, Lillian (Madeleine Stowe), and names Berman the sole beneficiary. Gittes, it seems, has been used again (as he was in the original film), this time as an unwitting accomplice in a carefully planned murder-for-profit scheme. While exposing the scheme would violate Gittes' confidential relationship with his client, the detective's alternative is to have his career ruined by Lillian, who has hired a hotshot lawyer (Frederic Forrest) to turn Gittes' life into litigation hell. Gittes tries to negotiate a compromise by having Berman pay off Lillian with her late husband's share of their partnership. However, the plot develops yet another layer of betrayal, involving a grab for mineral rights to the oil-rich land by none other than Katherine Mulwray, the daughter-sister of CHINATOWN'S ill-fated, incestuous heroine, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Katherine is the original owner of the orange grove upon which Berman and his late partner were building their development. An important clue in the increasingly convoluted mystery comes from a reference to Katherine on the motel-room wire recording, leading Gittes to conduct an extended and obsessive investigation into her present whereabouts. Through the various plot twists, leading up to a not-too-surprising surprise revelation (Kitty turns out to be Katherine), Gittes is finally forced to decide whether or not to tamper with evidence and perjure himself to protect the daughter of the woman he was unable to protect in the first film. Unquestionably, THE TWO JAKES has the look of CHINATOWN. What it lacks are the dramatic underpinnings and emotional core that made the original film an engrossing mystery as well as a cinema classic. As a sequel, it falls somewhere between a by-the-numbers retread and an original work in its own right. Groping for originality, it's filled with pointless scenes set for no discernible reason in exotic 40s LA locations. THE TWO JAKES also reprises characters from its predecessor, along with the actors who originally played them, without integrating those characters into the action in any meaningful way. Where characters can't return for the sequel, THE TWO JAKES awkwardly offers "stand-ins"--like Richard Farnsworth's flinty oil tycoon for John Huston's Noah Cross--that have even less to do with the main action than the returning characters. THE TWO JAKES is also more self-indulgent and mean-spirited than the original. Perhaps in deference to the sequel's star-director Nicholson, Gittes is the hero here, though he wasn't in the original. If CHINATOWN has a hero, it is Evelyn Mulwray who, alone among the major characters, cares about someone else (her daughter) more than she does about herself. Acting out of love, rather than self-interest, Evelyn is destroyed. THE TWO JAKES has no corresponding tragic hero at its core to propel the action. As a result, it rambles through its distended running time rather than being driven to a catharsis of horror and fear as the original is. Worse, the sequel tries substituting melodrama for tragedy, relying on a fatal disease--of all things--and Gittes' promise to protect Kitty to absolve both a cold-blooded murder and its subsequent coverup. The film's mean-spiritedness comes through primarily in the grotesque portrayal of Lillian, who's not only a drunk, but also a pill popper, a neurotic, and an off-the-wall nymphomaniac--all of which serves only to make her somehow more deserving of the treachery Gittes inflicts upon her to protect Kitty. Despite having used her own sexuality to lure a man to his death, Kitty manages to appear chastely ephemeral throughout the film and therefore somehow more deserving of Gittes' protection. Even more gratuitous is the inclusion of the character played by David Keith. The son of the policeman who killed Evelyn Mulwray in the original film, Keith's character exists solely to allow Gittes to humiliate him as a weird form of cross-generational revenge. Through it all, what makes THE TWO JAKES most disappointing is the degree to which Nicholson and writer Robert Towne seem to have failed to understand their own creation. The seasoned, classical sensibility of CHINATOWN's director, Roman Polanski, is sorely missed. Nicholson doesn't appear to have so much directed THE TWO JAKES as supervised it. Generally, he has done a better job directing the other actors than he has directing himself. Most of the performers have at least one memorable moment, while Nicholson, despite being in virtually every shot of the film, never makes much of an impression. However, lacking a strong plot with which to work, even the ensemble seems to be acting in a dramatic void. Towne's typically rich dialog is similarly disconnected, anchored in nothing but the author's own verbal virtuosity. The script contains ideas that should have been interesting (such as Gittes' injury in a natural-gas explosion in the early going, which causes him to wander through the film in a concussed stupor) but that aren't developed, much less exploited, in Nicholson's direction or performance. The historical framework, which lent such resonance to CHINATOWN, is so inadequately explained here that it ultimately works against the plot's resolution. The film's overall lack of inspiration may in part be due to its tortured production history. THE TWO JAKES originally went before the cameras in 1985, only to be shut down days later amid a bitter feud sparked by then-director Towne's firing of then-costar and producer Robert Evans, originally cast in the role of Jake Berman. Whatever the causes, the magic is simply gone from this star-crossed sequel. The best that can be said about THE TWO JAKES is that it provides a means to more deeply appreciate the film that came before it. (Profanity, adult situations, violence.)