The '80s found many of the young turks that revolutionized Hollywood in the '70s desperate and adrift. A love and grief-stricken Peter Bogdanovich stopped sobbing uncontrollably while curled up in a fetal ball just long enough to direct one good movie (Mask) and a whole bunch of flops. Producer Julia Phillips bullied and bad-mouthed her way out of Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studio was floundering under the weight of bloated budgets and good intentions gone awry. Terrence Malick went AWOL. A coke-addled Hal Ashby was immersed in an interminable, drawn-out act of professional suicide. William Friedkin, George Roy Hill, and Michael Ritchie were all reduced to directing Chevy Chase vehicles while Robert Altman went from the giddy '70s highs of M.A.S.H. and The Long Goodbye to the soul-crushing '80s lows of O.C. And Stiggs and Beyond Therapy.
But few of the decade's icons had fallen as far as actor-turned-producer-turned-studio-head-turned-audio-book-king Robert Evans, that sultan of self-mythology, that peerless poet of purple prose. By his own humble estimation, Evans reigned over the '70s like a Greek God, but in the '80s his name popped up in the papers for all the wrong reasons. He was busted trying to purchase liquid cocaine. Cotton Club, his big, gaudy comeback vehicle, flopped and Evans found himself embroiled in scandal when one of the film's financiers was murdered.
In the midst of this personal and professional downward spiral, Evans' good buddy Jack Nicholson offered to lend a hand. He agreed to star in a sequel to Chinatown called The Two Jakes, written and directed by Robert Towne, who hungered for a chance to establish himself as a true auteur and not just a great screenwriter who sometimes directed movies. Evans was on board to produce and, in a twist worthy of a melodramatic ham like Evans, return to acting after a multi-decade absence as the second male lead.
Was Evans back? You bet your ass he was! It was goodbye Chumpsville, hello A-List, population: Robert Evans. Kid Notorious was raring for another shot at the limelight. Evans must have felt like Lady Luck had showed up at his front door with a truck full of liquid blow and a school bus full of 18-year-old hookers in cheerleader outfits. If, as Evans humbly asserts in his wonderful autobiography The Kid Stays in The Picture (if you haven't read it yet, for the love of God run out and purchase it immediately. You won't be sorry), the anti-drug PSAs he, um, was ordered to produce after his drug bust were "the Woodstock of the '80s," then clearly his return to the screen in The Two Jakes would be nothing less than the V-J Day of acting comebacks.
Then everything fell apart. Evans was fired not long into shooting and the plug was soon pulled on the whole operation. After Batman, however, Nicholson could probably get a big-budget feature-film adaptation of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music green-lit. The Two Jakes was officially back in business, but Towne was out as director and Evans was a producer in name only.
Nicholson took over as director for a follow-up that found Nicholson's cynical shamus fat and complacent–much like the actor playing him– but still working the divorce beat. Nicholson's fortunes begin to change when he's lured into a seemingly simple adultery case that spirals into an elaborate quagmire involving murder, betrayal, black gold, and, inevitably, the case at the heart of Chinatown. The memory of John Huston and Faye Dunaway haunts Nicholson in the same way the legacy of Chinatown casts a long, gloomy shadowy over its tepid follow-up. Richard Farnsworth and Ruben Blades turn in juicy supporting turns, but the film feels the absence of a supporting player as towering and iconic as Huston like a phantom limb.
Incidentally, when I was 14 my sister watched Chinatown for the first time and I very thoughtfully enhanced the experience for her by blurting out, every five minutes or so, "There's a big twist coming up! You're never going to believe the big twist! It's a great one! Big, big twist coming up!" As a very tardy act of contrition, I've decided to give away as little of The Two Jakes's plot as possible.
In many ways, The Two Jakes is a victim of its predecessors' success. By 1990, the detective-movie tropes Chinatown helped reintroduce had devolved into clichés from over-use. Without a strong director or producer to tame his writerly exuberance, Towne's dialogue frequently takes on a purplish tint, and not of the fun Robert Evans variety. Back in my Movie Club days, my producer used to wince sometimes while I was reading from my reviews from the teleprompter and grouse "Ooooh. You can really hear the writing." He never meant it as a compliment. For him, good television writing was invisible, natural, and indistinguishable from conversation.
Watching The Two Jakes I could hear the writing, and not in a good way. Every overwrought line and nugget of hard-boiled philosophy screams "Robert Towne!" instead of serving the film. Of course, the detective genre boasts a hard-boiled dialect all its own. Brick pushed the artificiality of shamus-speak so far that it barely resembled English. But there's flashy, self-conscious writing that draws audiences into a world, like Brick or Miller's Crossing, and over-written dialogue that takes them out of one. The Two Jakes's stilted, fussy writing, especially its heavy-handed voice-over narration, belongs to the second group.
After a certain point in his career, Jack Nicholson stopped trying to get inside the complicated psyches of non-conformist lawyers, foul mouthed but sentimental sailors, and charismatic mental patients, and started playing minor variations on his ubiquitous public persona. Part of this shift was economic. In exchange for Nicholson's bloated movie-star salary, producers and studios wanted all the lucrative aspects of the big-money Nicholson brand: the shit-eating grin, the arched, expressive eyebrows, the smug smirk, the ever-present sunglasses, the hipster-beatnik delivery. The Two Jakes has the misfortune to star Nicholson after he stopped playing diverse characters and started playing himself. His performance isn't bad, but like the film it so unsteadily anchors, it's more professional than passionate and skirts bloated self-parody throughout.
In a strange way, Chinatown already boasted a satisfying sequel of sorts in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, another noir-tinged detective movie that doubled as a creation myth for the smog-choked, sprawling metropolis that is Los Angeles, a sunny place founded on dark deeds and nefarious doings. Then again, Roger Rabbit boasted a prankish, mischievous spirit unencumbered by the safe reverence that sinks The Two Jakes.
The film's warmly burnished palette seems derived from the unnatural orange of Nicholson's leathery perma-tan. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is gorgeous, but it's not remotely gritty. Neither is the film, which has the arbitrary feel of a late-period concert by rock dinosaurs. The song remains the same, but the passion and fire are long gone, replaced by a grudging sense of obligation.
Where Chinatown elevated the detective movie to the level of a Shakespearean tragedy, its handsomely mounted yet strangely lifeless and inconsequential sequel ultimately amounts to much ado about nothing. In nobly setting out to help out two old friends and collaborators, Nicholson ended up disappointing everyone, including the audience and himself.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure