Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Two Jakes

The Two Jakes (Jack Nicholson, 1990) One of my favorite films—indeed, one of those films that is darn-near perfect—is Roman Polanski's studio-picture, Chinatown. An independent project, written by Robert Towne for his pal Jack Nicholson, and shepherded by Robert Evans as part of his exclusive deal with Paramount after serving as their production director for several years, and overseeing their biggest hits like The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby (also directed by Polanski), Love Story, even True Grit.

Chinatown was a big hit, as well, well-received by critics, well-attended by audiences, and pushed Nicholson into A-list star status after a decade toiling as an idiosyncratic character actor.

But, Towne envisaged (once the film was successful) Chinatown as the first of a three part trilogy documenting the growth and corruption of Los Angeles, through the eyes of private investigator Jake Gittes. Chinatown was about the corrupt machinations to bring water to the desert of L.A. The second part would involve the acquisition and destruction of the land for energy. The third part has never been definitively defined, once being a story about nuclear power, and then (tentatively titled "Cloverleaf") about the creation of California's all-encompassing highway system and, then, later, "Gittes vs. Gittes" about the beginnings of "no-fault divorce" in the legal system, which would, of course, destroy Gittes' line of work.. Whether that third film will ever get beyond the concept stage is doubtful. The difficulties in making the second saw to that.

Towne's second script, The Two Jakes, would see Jake Gittes (Nicholson), post World War II, still doing matrimonial work, but this time for a housing developer, Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel), whose wife Kitty (Meg Tilly) is cheating on him. The two spend a bit of time rehearsing what Berman will say when he bursts in on Kitty and her lover in order to cement the divorce case in court. But, something goes terribly wrong. While Jake is in the next-door motel-room recording the encounter on the newly-state-of-the-art wire-recorder, Berman bursts in and goes lethally off-script, shooting Kitty's lover, who turns out to be Berman's partner, Mark Bodine. The LAPD show up, and sensing pre-meditation with Gittes' involvement, arrest Berman and threaten Gittes with "obstruction of justice" for playing dumb and hiding the wire recording of the incident in his office safe.
But the police, in the form of Captain Escobar (Perry Lopez from the first film), are only part of the interest in that recording. Berman's attorney (Eli Wallach) wants it, so does his mobster pal Mickey Nice (Ruben Blades) and Modine's widow Lillian (Madeline Stowe).
On a visit to one of Berman's housing developments, Gittes goes off for a smoke and ends up getting blown off his feet by a natural gas explosion. Seems like some nearby drilling by fracking is opening up natural gas fissures on the property that may welcome in a non-smoking policy 50 years early. It takes some doing, but Jake eventually gets to talk to the elderly oil wildcatter (Richard Farnsworth) who explains the process of whip-stocking that allows him to drill at an angle to reach oil deposits even if he doesn't have the rights to drill directly down. When Jake investigates who has the mineral rights under the Berman housing development, he comes across a familiar, haunting name: "Mulwray."

Jake is his usual laconic self while negotiating through the vested interests of the case, but the bringing up of the Mulwray name rocks him to his core...and its not just because of the temblors that are quaking through the L.A. area. His involvement with the Mulwray's—Claude, the murdered water commissioner from the "Chinatown" case, his widow Evelyn and daughter Katherine, and the way the case went downhill still haunts him. A visit to Kahn, the Mulwray butler and major domo (James Hong) gives him little peace or information, despite the old man's being at peace by his embracing of Japanese culture. An old letter from Evelyn, written before their final meeting in Chinatown, burns in his memory. 
But, things have changed after the war. Secrets are no longer kept hidden, now they're right out in the open, brazen. It's levels of bureaucracy, and obfuscation that keeps them from sight, which is why Jake probably misses the most important clue that has been right under his scarred nose for the entire case, hiding in plain sight.
Chinatown, despite the Mulwray connection, is only tangentially attached to the current case, giving The Two Jakes story some weight by association by merely whip-stocking the other, better film and providing Gittes—self-described as "the guy in the leper colony with the most fingers"—a reason besides self-vindication to do the right thing, at least as Berman has engineered it.
Anticipation for The Two Jakes was high. 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 of plot. It feels tacked on and unnecessary, not unlike the narration of the original, theatrical release of Blade Runner.
On top of that, the direction is a bit self-indulgent, sometimes going for baroque angles that seem a little too fancy,* certainly in comparison to Polanski who kept Chinatown focused and at a simple shoulder-high level. Polanski controlled the environment he showed while not betraying anything fussy, thus not distracting from the fact the film WAS taking place in the 1930's and that was as common a thing as could happen in that movie. He chose the locations not to betray the period and his simple way of portraying it. That gave that film an air of authenticity, not an air of avoidance.
The other thing is casting: Meg Tilly is 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, the earlier film'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. 
Chinatown is a film of regrets in front of the camera. The Two Jakes is one behind the camera. If the character of Gittes is left with what if's in the first film, they are transferred to the viewer in the second. 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" (or "Gittes vs. Gittes")—along with it. 

It's what happens when hubris replaces professionalism.

* Take the above shot in the lobby of the LAPD. One might excuse it as avoiding some 1990's incongruity that wouldn't fit in a 1950's period piece. A more disciplined director might have found a less distracting solution. Sidney Lumet starts his book "Making Movies" with the answer Akira Kurosawa gave him about a particular shot in Ran—if he panned one inch to the left you would have seen a Sony factory and one inch to the right, the airport, neither of which fit the period.

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