The Two Jakes, written by Robert Towne, directed by Jack Nicholson, starring Jack Nicholson (J.J. “Jake” Gittes), Harvey Keitel (Julius “Jake” Berman), Meg Tilly (Kitty Berman), Madeleine Stowe (Lillian Bodine), Perry Lopez (Lou Escobar), Richard Farnsworth (Earl Rawley) (1990): This much later sequel to the much-praised neo-noir Chinatown sees Jake Gittes ten years older (it’s now 1948) and much more successful as the head of a private detective agency specializing in cheating husbands and wives. It was a critical and commercial dud at the time, though it now looks pretty good: it only suffers by comparison to Chinatown.
Nicholson’s direction (this is either his third or second directorial effort) is solid but unspectacular, though the golden and brown hues of the cinematography make the whole thing go down pretty smoothly. Robert Towne, who also wrote Chinatown, returns here, in good form.
You can follow the plot of The Two Jakes without having seen Chinatown, but I wouldn’t recommend it. A lot of the emotional heft of this film comes from its connections with the events of the first film, in which Gittes was inexorably pulled into a wide-ranging scheme with both personal and professional repercussions.
The always welcome Richard Farnsworth gets shoehorned into this film as a sort of substitute for the awful antagonist of the first film (played with jolly, sinister menace by John Huston), but ultimately has nothing to do. This leaves Nicholson and the other Jake, Harvey Keitel, with a lot of heavy lifting to do as actors, and they do it well.
A somewhat overstuffed cast of characters keeps things interesting (Tom Waits’s cameo as a cop is pretty funny), and the plot actually does make sense, though red herrings and reversals do make the scheme behind all the other schemes look more complicated than it really is. Keep an eye out for an anachronistic ATM in one shot. Recommended.