It's ironic that the best movie about the Watergate era is Chinatown, a detective story set in 1937, nearly four decades ahead of the political coverup that shook the nation. Released in 1974, two years before the real Watergate tale was filmed in All the President's Men, Chinatown exposed moral rot masked by official sanctimony. In a juicy role, Jack Nicholson starred as Jake Gittes, a Los Angeles private eye on a divorce case who accidentally uncovers a land scam that extends to the highest levels. Written by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski and produced by Robert Evans — all hitting career peaks — Chinatown signaled an end to Sixties idealism; it ranks with the great emblematic movies of the time (see "Seventies Films: Ten That Matter").
The Two Jakes, the long-awaited sequel to Chinatown, is unlikely to make any list of the best movies of the Nineties. It's an honorable failure, an attempt to deal with ideas (in a summer of idiocies), but the film keeps hammering points Chinatown expressed more subtly and powerfully. The making of The Two Jakes was almost as convoluted as its plot: Scheduled for filming in 1985, with Towne directing (Polanski went into exile from the U.S. after being charged with statutory rape) and producer Evans costarring as Jake Berman, a new client of Gittes's, the production stalled when Towne balked at using the relatively inexperienced Evans as an actor. Work started again early in 1989, with Harvey Keitel cast as the other Jake and Nicholson doubling as director and star. (The actor's two previous directing experiences — Drive, He Said and Goin' South — are decidedly mixed bags.) Before shooting ended on Jakes, tension had split the creative team. Evans was called as a witness in a murder trial involving the making of his 1984 film The Cotton Club, and Nicholson made alterations in the script that rankled Towne. It now seems doubtful that the three men will realize their dream of completing a film trilogy involving the despoiling of Los Angeles.
That might be just as well. Those who buy a ticket to The Two Jakes without a Chinatown video refresher course are going to be mighty confused. Nicholson has written narration for Gittes to tie things together. But if the names Cross, Kahn, Loach and Mulwray don't mean a thing to you when you walk in, good luck. Seeing The Two Jakes cold is like tackling Finnegan's Wake without a skeleton key, and there's hardly the commensurate satisfaction in making the effort.
Here's a brief reminder: A woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to nail her husband, Hollis, chief of the city's water department, for dallying with a young blonde. Then the real Mrs. Mulwray (an ardently icy Faye Dunaway) shows up to sue Gittes after her husband is murdered. Gittes ends up falling for the widow. But Evelyn harbors dark secrets. The blonde with Hollis was her daughter, Katherine, sired by Evelyn's father, Noah Cross (John Huston, in an indelible portrait of smiling evil), a power broker with no compunctions about raping the land or his daughter. In the film's climax, set in L.A.'s Chinatown, Gittes watches Evelyn get shot while the police do nothing and Cross spirits Katherine off into the night. "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," says one of Gittes's operatives. Towne wanted a more optimistic ending, with Evelyn escaping with Katherine; it was Polanski who insisted on the morally bleak denouement, which uses lawless Chinatown as a symbol of spreading corruption. Having endured the tragedy of his wife, Sharon Tate, being slaughtered in Los Angeles by the Manson family, Polanski was a pessimist in touch with his times.
The Two Jakes restores Towne's cautious optimism. The year is 1948. Gittes, a war hero, has become paunchy and prosperous from living off the infidelity business. But when Jake Berman, a shady real-estate developer well acted by Keitel, engages Gittes to spy on his unfaithful wife, Kitty (Meg Tilly, doing her ironbutterfly routine), the past comes flooding back. Gittes has been set up again. He arranges for Berman to catch Kitty in a motel bed with her lover, but he doesn't know that the lover is Berman's business partner or that Berman will have a gun. The partner's wife, Lillian, smashingly done by Madeleine Stowe, knows the truth, and she's not above seducing Gittes — in the film's funniest scene — to get the evidence. Gittes has made a wire recording of what was said in the motel room. One name mentioned on the audio freezes his blood — Katherine Mulwray.
As the mystery unravels, Gittes is drawn further back into the past. In trying to find and help Katherine, he's trying to rediscover the decent part of himself. Nice concept — faulty execution. For all the period style of the sets, the costumes and the Vilmos Zsigmond photography, the film feels uninhabited. New characters appear — Richard Farnsworth as a greedy oil baron, Rubén Blades as a sadistic hood, David Keith as a hotheaded cop, Rebecca Broussard (the mother of Nicholson's infant daughter) as Gittes's secretary — but they fail to register vividly. Towne doesn't weave all the elements as deftly as before, and his political observations seem secondhand. The outcome, which reveals the connection between the two Jakes, is a sentimental contrivance.
As a director, Nicholson is no Polanski. The atmosphere doesn't seep into the viewer's pores the way it did in Chinatown. You don't catch anything out of the corner of your eye; it's all thrust at you. As an actor, however, Nicholson is the film's only undiluted pleasure. The man can do more with an arched eyebrow than others can with a Shakespearean soliloquy. It's a reactive, un-Jokerish performance and a deeply felt one, Near the end, Gittes tells Kitty something about the past: "It doesn't go away," he says. The memory of Chinatown doesn't go away, either. After all these years, it's still haunting. The Two Jakes is merely haunted.