The Two Jakes opens the same as Chinatown, with a sad husband making inconsolable noises over evidence of his wife’s infidelity. The only difference is, in the sequel, it’s a bad imitation of the genuine article. Given the non-existent legacy of this most ignoble thing – Chinatown 2 – it’s easy to mistake that as self-incrimination. But with no lurid details left unspilled across a decade of trades, brutal honesty is all there is to The Two Jakes.
Chinatown is a miracle of collaboration. Screenwriter Robert Towne, equal parts perfectionist and procrastinator, needed someone to realize his labyrinthine ode to old Los Angeles. Producer-immortal Robert Evans needed a showy project to spit-shine the Paramount peak. Director Roman Polanski needed something to exorcise his personal So-Cal ghosts. Jack Nicholson needed one clean shot at leading man status. Despite the occasional, inevitable friction, it worked.
The Two Jakes is a product of compromise. Discussions of a sequel started in 1976, with Dustin Hoffman courted for Jake #2. Hoffman passed. Everyone else got busy and then, as New Hollywood aged, nostalgic. In 1984, the band got back together in earnest, minus Polanski. Towne was promoted to director and Evans to co-star, the new Jake #2. Four days before cameras rolled, Towne fired Evans over a terminal lack of screen presence. Two days into production, without a foot of celluloid spent, Paramount pronounced it dead. Towne shopped it to other studios as an original script, to star Harrison Ford and Roy Scheider. Evans, Towne, and Nicholson reconciled enough to take calls from Cannon Films, the house that Chucks Norris and Bronson built. With so much litigation hanging over the false start, however, there was nowhere else to make it but Paramount. With Evans onboard in-name-only and Towne hiding from the unfinished script in Bora Bora, however, there was no one left to punish but Jack Nicholson, as star and director.
He always was J.J. Gittes. Towne wrote him that way and Nicholson clocked the similarities at 90% on Chinatown. By the time The Two Jakes finally happened, it was even harder to spot the differences.
Gittes didn’t have much left to prove. Nicholson was fresh off Batman and one of the biggest paydays in cinema history. Gittes was a decorated war hero. Nicholson had won two Oscars, three BAFTAs, and four Golden Globes since the first movie. Gittes found a good wife to cheat on. Nicholson’s marriage to Angelica Huston fell apart when his affair with Rebecca Broussard, who appears briefly as Jake’s secretary, led to the birth of his first child three months before the premiere. Gittes expanded the P.I. firm from a hole-in-the-wall office to a tasteful art deco complex and started taking his golf handicap seriously. Nicholson was in a whole new tax bracket, lightyears removed from his piss-and-vinegar persona and staring down middle-age.
On Jake and Hollywood, the suburban disease has taken polite toll. There aren’t many natural wonders left to lose. The orange groves are half gone, eulogized with a slogan for the latest plastic cul-de-sac: “Welcome to Country Living!” California itself is furious and, like the rest of post-war America, fatally repressed. Earthquakes interrupt on the hour and there’s so much natural gas underfoot that tap water comes out carbonated, but hey – at least it still looks like a postcard between the oil derricks.
“In this town,” says Gittes, “I’m the leper with the most fingers.” (It’s the creed of frustrated screenwriters from the genre that frustrated screenwriters built.) Whatever honor compelled him 11 years ago has atrophied into sleazy contentment. He’s less of a private investigator than a glorified fixer, coaching husbands on how to sound upset for their divorce trials and sending his boys to make sure hysterical wives don’t take the wrong pills. It leaves dirt under the nails, but at least it comes with a parking spot.
The only thing that shakes him out of his comfortable rut is the name – Mulwray – whispered on wire recording between consenting adulterers. All it means to 1948 is a road, Mulwray Drive, and a file he hasn’t thrown away yet. All it meant to 1990 was a sequel past its sell-by date. The Los Angeles Times wrote it off as “beyond the range of audiences too young to care about private eye Jake Gittes.” Coming the summer after Ghostbusters 2, Indiana Jones 3, and Bond 16, it’s almost a valid complaint.
Like the original, Towne’s preferred ending was scrapped for its sentimentality. Instead of Gittes wistfully predicting the famous L.A. blizzard of 1949, he spends another bruised sunset in his office, telling the living, breathing cost of his failures how he can stand to live with them. He has no solution, but philosophy, hard-boiled Zen: The past will kill you if you let it.
It’s not perfect, not a patch on Chinatown, but The Two Jakes is a rare beast. Despite the lawsuits that forced its existence and unlikely director, this movie feels made only for the old friends involved, none of whom spoke to each other for decades after its torturous creation. Nicholson was proud enough of his work to oversee Paramount’s 2007 DVD release. Evans refused to talk about it beyond his memoirs. Towne, currently working with David Fincher on a J.J. Gittes prequel series, prefers to change the subject.
Watching the movie now, it’s easy to see why. The Two Jakes is a bittersweet admission of defeat from three men haunted by their greatest work, wondering if it could ever happen again, still stuck on that last line.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
In their defense, who could?
“The Two Jakes” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.