Criterion Prediction #61: Mikey and Nicky, by Alexander Miller
Title: Mikey and Nicky
Director: Elaine May
Cast: Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Ned Beatty, Rose Arrick, William Hickey, Carol Grace
Synopsis: Nicky (Cassavetes) is a mess. He’s holed up in a hotel room, and in a state of desperation calls up his friend Mikey (Falk) for help. Nicky is a hopelessly paranoid and fearful once he learns that a mob boss may have out a contract out on his life. While Mikey is trying to be the voice of reason, Nicky is erratic, unpredictable and mistrusting of everything and everyone, even his best friend whom he called for help. Over the course of one night, they endure the strain of friendship and loyalty while one of their lives is hanging on the line.
Critique: Mikey and Nicky is one of those films that you can see, hear, feel, smell, and relate to, regardless of whether or not you’re a gangster, old, young, male or female. It’s a simple story. Neither of them is the prototypical “good guy”, it’s just that Mikey is comparatively better than Nicky. Our two leads are delineated by one truth; one is worse than the other, ala Kane and Old Dog in Menace II Society, Charlie and Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, Henry and Tommy in Goodfellas; ironically this is one of the few traits of the film that falls in line with the gangster genre.
And in a turn of perfect casting Peter Falk is the outwardly warmer, Mikey, he seems to care about his reckless, lifelong friend Nicky. John Cassavetes’s directing and acting credentials might eclipse one or the other, but this man was put on this earth to play unbelievable bastards. Cassavetes thrives in his own work, is occasionally brilliant doing acting gigs for hire, lest he shows his contention for the material, and is capable of astonishing turns of dramatic gravitas working with a director (such as May) that enables Cassavetes to be unrestrained and captivating.
There’s a spontaneity to it that feels like a self-writing narrative, and the unpredictable actions of Nicky are improvisational time steps – rhyme and reason aren’t a secondary consideration but ignored altogether as the two combative allies stumble from one idiotic whimsy to another. Mostly at the behest of an all too convincingly pigheaded Nicky, thanks to, what might be John Cassavetes’s best performance. In some hands, this freewheeling narrative might seem like an exercise in vanity or a contentious reverberation of a genre movie, but the sense of dedication in the direction and acting suggest that this is the kind of work that is still ahead of its time.
Elaine May is a tragically extinct type of director who can navigate a director/writer relationship with a superlative pool of collaborators (Warren Beatty, former husband Mike Nichols, Dustin Hoffman, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry, etc.) and a flippant “take it or leave it” relationship with studios. The May/Nichols comedy team gave way to her previous comedies A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid and she somehow is capable of effortlessly sliding into the adored gangster/neo-noir arena, echoing such elegiac, and gritty resonance without calling stylistic attention to itself.
It unconsciously incorporates perfunctory elements of the genre – the loose cannon friend, themes of betrayal, loyalty, and integrity – however, May seems to accept that it’s more beneficial to use the grammar of a genre instead of trying to rewrite the piece into an obscured shadow of abstract revisionism.
And yet, Mikey and Nicky succeeds in working on its own terms. The nastily beautiful tenor of the city (Philadelphia) is utilized to it’s full potential. The streets, busses, bars, theatres, and hotels are framed without insistence. It’s a compilation of rough-hewn but anonymous iconography, no vistas, panoramas, or establishing overhead shots. This isn’t Rocky. It’s Mikey and Nicky.
I would like to classify Elaine May in an alternate cinematic universe where she, Mike Nichols, Arthur Penn, Alan Pakula, and John Boorman eclipse more noted, stylistic auteurs like Peckinpah, Altman, or De Palma, while Mikey and Nicky is a classic in the gangster genre and some kid is writing about this undiscovered gem called Mean Streets.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: While I can understand why and how a film like Mikey and Nicky could slide past the moviegoers and self-proclaimed cinephiles for its time, but I can’t reconcile the relative disregard that seems to have plagued a film that is well passed a deserving renaissance, but claimed as a rediscovered and maligned classic. In terms of distribution, Mikey and Nicky is with HVE entertainment, the same distribution that housed several titles now in The Criterion Collection, not to mention Mikey and Nicky having (or had) a spot in Criterion’s Hulu channel. I would like to think that Elaine May is already on her way to becoming a name in the collection, if not this than perhaps A New Leaf or The Heartbreak Kid. I would even buy a copy of Ishtar but I don’t think that’ll happen anytime soon.