Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Two Jakes

"The Two Jakes" (Jack Nicholson, 1990) The second part of a planned "Jake Gittes" L.A. trilogy (that had started with "Chinatown") was snake-bit almost from the start. Centered around the three great California swindles (water, oil, and transportation), the second film, to be entitled "The Two Jakes"—involving real estate and related oil grab—was set in the post-war 40's. Robert Towne, who wrote the original "Chinatown," was set to direct his old friend Jack Nicholson for the sequel, and for the real estate baron Jake Berman, it was agreed to cast executive producer Robert Evans, who hadn't appeared in a movie since 1959.

Something happened. The particulars are hazy, but the story is that
Towne was unhappy with Evans' performance, and Evans being the executive producer was unhappy with that (his autobiography is, of course, "The Kid Stays in the Picture"). The production was shelved until 1989 when Nicholson himself took the director's chair, Harvey Keitel in Evans' spot and a new production began, with a script that wasn't done to Nicholson's satisfaction and was being re-written while shooting.

What emerged was something of a mess. "Chinatown" was a complicated film, but "The Two Jakes" had the added burdens of a complicated plot and a carry-over theme from the previous film. Some sections seem well thought out and designed, and others rushed to the point of obtuseness. To patch the bare spots and try and salvage the dramatic flow, Nicholson wrote and recorded a narration—not an unusual thing to find in a detective movie—that had more to do with character points than clarity.

The other thing is casting:
Meg Tilly was a bit too young to be playing Berman's philandering wife, her acting makes her character something of a blank spot, and her motivations are never hinted at—and she's absolutely critical to the story. On top of that, her presence makes Gittes appear to be pretty stupid for not spotting what is revealed in the story, and the plot-machinations a bit contrived. This is apparent if you've seen "Chinatown." If you haven't, 'The Two Jakes" leaves you high and dry, it's plot about the diversion of water to the city an integral part of the information needed to get anything out of the film. It tries to do too much, introduce too many incidental characters, and ultimately fails to congeal as a coherent movie rather than a roughly assembled series of scenes and ideas. If Towne had been around to tighten the script, it might have been different. If he had directed it, rather than Nicholson, it might have been more cohesive as Towne is a fairly strict director. But the important part is that the three essentials for the project—Nicholson, Towne and Evans could not compromise, and so "The Two Jakes" was compromised, taking the third film in the trilogy—the much-rumored "Cloverleaf"—along with it. It's what happens when hubris replaces professionalism.

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