Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Two Jakes and the Trilogy that Never Was
It’s not absolutely necessary to have seen Chinatown to appreciate its sequel, The Two Jakes, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Originally designed as the second installment of a trilogy about the rise and fall of Los Angeles, The Two Jakes takes up where Chinatown left off, albeit some eleven years later.

Private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) has prospered in the ensuing years since the events of Chinatown. He returned from WWII as something of a hero (though what he did isn’t specified), owns the building from which he does business, belongs to a country club, enjoys golf and has a more or less fiancée. He hasn’t forgotten his roots, though—he’s still a gumshoe at heart. And he’s not even remotely chagrined that his business largely hinges on marital philandering. By all appearances, he’s middle-age successful and happy.

In the best tradition of the noir detective, things for Jake Gittes are never what they appear to be. The years have been have been kind to him, but the past still haunts his subconscious. As the film opens, he’s cocky and cynical to a fault. He’s “the leper with the most fingers”, as he puts it. But when he finds himself embroiled in a divorce case that may have been a pretext for murder, he’s forced to realize the past is always lurking just over his shoulder.

Originally intended as the second part of a trilogy about the despoiling of Los Angeles, The Two Jakes never really achieves the murky atmosphere of Chinatown. Water rights were at the core of Chinatown, and darkness prevailed as its metaphor. In The Two Jakes, oil serves as the root of evil, and most of the film is shot in bright sunny hues. At the core of both films, though, is the nature of how the past is omnipresent. The orange groves in Chinatown are mowed under to make room for suburban developments in The Two Jakes. It’s a post-war America, so full of optimism for a future, it’s blindsided by its past.

Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) is a sympathetic foil for Gittes. Like Gittes, Berman has returned from the war scarred but optimistic in his hopes for the future. He may or may not have murdered his business partner, but his love for his wandering wife (Meg Tilley) is undeniable. She, of course, has her own dark past, inextricably linked to Gittes. It’s all the stuff of great noir, but Robert Towne’s script meanders too much to make it truly compelling. Admittedly, this film had a troubled gestation, and fell victim to numerous rewrites, some of which were done by Nicholson himself.

Where The Two Jakes falls short is in Nicholson’s direction. As good as he is as an actor, Nicholson is only pedestrian as a director. He has a problem with separating Nicholson the actor from Nicholson the director. As a result, every shot favors Nicholson the narcissist. While he nods to Polanski’s Chinatown, it’s impossible to forget that this emerges as a Jack Nicholson vehicle. Nicholson hints at that in the DVD’s only special feature, a featurette entitled “Jack on Jakes.”

To be sure, The Two Jakes is a flawed film. Considering it was conceived as a bridge in a trilogy that never happened, however, it remains a minor treasure in the evolution of neo noir. The plot is convoluted, disjointed and only hints at the evils it attempts to purvey. Nonetheless, beneath its watercolor landscape, it manages to convey the taut coil of the emerging cynicism of America as portrayed by Los Angeles.

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