Jack Nicholson’s disastrously-received sequel to Chinatown is far more interesting than its reputation implies.
Practically from the moment it was first released back in 1974, Chinatown has been enshrined as a true Hollywood classic. In the years since then, practically every aspect of its tumultuous production has been explored at length in countless books, documentaries, magazine pieces and even Sam Wasson’s recently published chronicle of its making (itself now heading to the screen in an adaptation to be written and directed by Ben Affleck).
By comparison, on the rare occasions when the film’s sequel, The Two Jakes (1990) is discussed, the tone tends to be more cautionary than celebratory. Here’s a film that endured not one but two extraordinarily troubled production periods that were extremely public in nature before being released to critical indifference, commercial catastrophe, and the ending of numerous personal and professional relationships.
After that, nothing—a film that no one could stop talking about at one point had disappeared so completely from the public consciousness that it is almost as if it had never existed, a notion that would probably suit many just fine.
But does it really deserve the weird combination of scorn and obscurity that it has slipped into in the ensuing 30 years? To state the extremely obvious, the film is no Chinatown. But to be fair, there aren’t a lot of other movies that have come along during that time and hit that particular high-water mark either.
That said, while the film suffers in comparison to its predecessor in practically every imaginable category, those who acknowledge that going in may be surprised to discover how not bad it actually is. It’s an ambitious but flawed work that offers the expected stew of sex, murder and corruption. But weirdly, it also serves as a meditation on the hypnotic spell the original film has cast on so many people over the years.
When the idea of a Chinatown sequel first came up in the 1980s, it was designed as a reunion between three of the original’s key personnel—Jack Nicholson, screenwriter Robert Towne and producer Robert Evans—that they would co-produce in a deal that promised them huge rewards if it proved to be as successful as the first film.
This time, however, there were a couple of changes in the configuration of the lineup that would eventually prove to be disastrous. With original director Roman Polanski out of the picture—you know exactly why—Towne, who had famously feuded with Polanski over changes to the ending of Chinatown, wanted to direct in addition to writing the screenplay.
This wasn’t too outrageous a request; by this time, Towne had already directed the controversial Personal Best (1982). While it didn’t do well financially, it was a reasonably well-made drama that received a number of respectful views. However, in addition to serving as producer, Evans was somehow cast as the film’s co-star, the second Jake of the title. Sure, Evans had done a little bit of acting in the ‘50s, but as anyone who saw him in The Sun Also Rises (1957) or The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958) can attest, acting was not exactly his bag.
[D]oes it really deserve the weird combination of scorn and obscurity that it has slipped into in the ensuing 30 years?
As the film got closer to the start of production in the spring of 1985, it evidently became obvious to all that Evans’s already-meager acting chops had atrophied with disuse. It’s rumored that co-star Kelly McGillis actually broke out laughing at his emoting during rehearsals. Tensions reportedly increased when he refused to get a necessary Forties-style haircut, to the point where Towne finally fired him only a few days before shooting was to begin. This upset Nicholson, who demanded that either Evans be reinstated or that he be paid his full market value instead of the relative pittance that he was getting. He also offered to simply buy the screenplay from Towne for $2 million.
For a few moments, it seemed as if there was a truce but on the first day of production, not a single foot was shot and the studio pulled the plug on the whole thing, sending shock waves through the industry not seen since the Heaven’s Gate (1980) debacle a few years earlier.
Once the dust and the inevitable lawsuits had settled, Nicholson decided to bring the now-notorious project back to life, albeit without his original partners. Instead of Towne, Nicholson would direct the film himself, his first effort in that capacity since the bizarre Western comedy Goin South (1978). Instead of Evans (who retained his producer credit), Harvey Keitel would play the second Jake, in a cast that would also include Meg Tilly, Madeline Stowe, Eli Wallach, Ruben Blades, and Richard Farnsworth.
Set in 1948, eleven years after the events of the first film, The Two Jakes shows that the passage of time has been kind to Jake Gittes (Nicholson). He appears to have all the obvious trappings of success: his own firm with a full staff of investigators, a new car, a glamorous fiancee, a country club membership where he works on his six handicap and even a bit of a well-fed paunch. But underneath that veneer of success, he is still haunted to some degree by the events of the first film and does penance for his past sins by occasionally taking on the kind of sleazy divorce cases that he theoretically would have long outgrown.
This leads him to help real estate developer Jake Berman (Keitel) set up a sting in which he will catch his wife Kitty (Tilly) having an affair with another man. This goes sideways, of course, when Berman pulls out a gun and kills his wife’s lover. If that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that the lover was Berman’s business partner and could potentially inherit his partner’s interest in their partnership if he is found temporarily insane.
Gittes appears to be screwed no matter what he does. If Berman successfully pleads temporary insanity, he stands to be sued by the dead man’s raging widow Lillian (Stowe). If he’s found guilty of premeditated murder, he could be charged as an accessory to the crime. His one ace in the hole is a wire recording of the entire incident, which everyone remotely connected to the case wants to get their hands on.
The recording makes a reference to a woman named Kathryn Mulwray, which sends Jake on twin investigations into what was really going on with Berman. One involves a mysterious blonde and a greedy oil man (Farnsworth) who may be illegally drilling under Berman and Bodine’s housing development. Another involves the fate of Katherine, who seems to be even more connected to the Berman case than originally suspected. While all this is going on, the area is rocked by a series of seismic events that only add to Gittes’s sense of discombobulation as he gets closer to (what may be) the truth.
The basic difference between Chinatown and The Two Jakes lies in their respective screenplays. The Chinatown script is considered by many to be the ideal example of the form; by comparison, Towne’s script for The Two Jakes never maintains a similar hold, possibly due to the fact that Towne had reportedly only completed 80% of the screenplay — Nicholson did further edits, apparently bringing James L. Brooks in to lend further assistance.
It has the same basic narrative structure: a murder mystery involving sex, power, greed, and secrets from the past, set against the expansion of Los Angeles. This time around, the mystery doesn’t quite pull together into a satisfying whole. Most viewers will be able to figure out what has become of Katherine long before Gittes gets it, and too many scenes meander, especially in the final stretch.
The other real problem is that, in much the same way that Gittes obsesses over the past throughout the film, The Two Jakes obsesses over its predecessor to an almost distracting degree. All sequels owe a debt to their predecessors, of course, but they usually make a stab at existing as their own individual thing.
In the case of The Two Jakes, not only is a viewing of Chinatown required for anyone attempting to watch it, one essentially has to watch it about 37 seconds beforehand to have any hope of understanding the plot or most of the supporting characters. No matter how much it tries to stand on its own, it keeps forcing comparisons to Chinatown to which it can never quite measure up.
And yet, it’s a film I developed a fondness for when it first came out, and recent rewatches have cemented that feeling. While the story may be uneven, especially in comparison to Chinatown, many of the scenes work on an individual basis thanks to Towne’s spiky dialogue (“In this town, I’m the leper with the most fingers”) and Nicholson’s generosity at ceding the spotlight to his large and talented supporting cast.
As a director, Nicholson’s work here is interesting— Polanski’s quiet menace has been replaced by a more prosperous, laid-back approach, even as terrible things are constantly threatening to burble to the surface with the force of an earthquake tremor. The film looks good and Nicholson keeps it moving along in an efficient manner without getting overly bogged down. His work here is good enough to make you wonder what he might have done for an encore.
However, the complete failure of The Two Jakes at the box-office and with critics put an apparent end to Nicholson’s directorial career. It also destroyed any hopes of a third film, which was to be called Gittes vs. Gittes and would reportedly have involved Gittes getting divorced in a ‘60s-set narrative involving land grabs. (There have been rumors of Towne and David Fincher joining forces for a Netflix series that would serve as a prequel, dealing with Gittes’s early years.)
Even with the continued veneration of Chinatown, The Two Jakes tends to be regarded as a mistake. It’s a shame, though; despite all its flaws, the film is still a smart and thoughtful work that is far more ambitious than the usual cash-in sequel, and definitely worth a reappraisal.