Picks and Pans Review: The Two Jakes

updated 09/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel

Here's an ideal film for Nicholson freaks, those who loved Chinatown, as well as anyone who likes to work differential equations in the dark with a dull pencil.

Nicholson directed and stars in this movie as Jake Gittes, the L.A. private eye who was at the heart of Chinatown, the 1974 Roman Polanski-directed masterpiece. The plot of The Two Jakes is full of twists, turns and murky characters, and it assumes that everyone memorized Chinatown. Even when things get resolved at the end, this is a movie you have to diagram to understand.

As the film opens, Nicholson is working for Keitel, a real-estate developer with an unfaithful wife, Meg Tilly. When Keitel kills Tilly's lover, it turns out to be Keitel's partner. Then all convolution breaks loose. There's a slimy oilman, Richard Farnsworth. There's a hood, Ruben Blades; the victim's wife, Madeleine Stowe; a bad cop, David Keith; Jake's fiancée, Rosie Vela; two hustling lawyers, Frederic Forrest and Eli Wailach; and many flashbacks about the Faye Dunaway character, who died in Chinatown, and her missing daughter.

Nicholson and Robert Towne, who wrote this movie as well as Chinatown, seem to be having fun reflecting their real-life success since 1974 in the change in Nicholson's character. For one thing, instead of a cheap office, Gittes now has a plush detective business. For another, he says at one point, "Trashy publicity is part of my business. The less you want, the more you get."

But mostly they play it slow and deliberate, showing Gittes as mellowed going on sentimental. There are also some very strange casting choices. The colorless Joe Mantell is the strangest as Nicholson's chief assistant.

By the end there's a question whether it was worth all the trouble it took to make this movie—not to mention the two hours and 20 minutes it takes to sit through it. But there are certainly worse films around. In any case, Nicholson and Towne have this one out of their system and can get on with something else. (R)

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