Mikey and Nicky (1976)
Directed by: Elaine May.
Written by: Elaine May.
Starring: Peter Falk (Mikey), John Cassavetes (Nicky Godalin), Ned Beatty (Kinney), Rose Arrick (Annie), Carol Grace (Nellie), William Hickey (Sid Fine), Sanford Meisner (Dave Resnick), Joyce Van Patten (Jan), M. Emmet Walsh (Bus Driver).
Elaine May’s first two films as a director – A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid – had moments that felt like they were improvised. Whether they were not or not, I’m not sure, but the former stage star certainly likes that feel in her movies. Her third film, Mikey and Nicky, feels entirely improvised for the first two thirds, before the plot necessitates an ending. Mikey and Nicky is a frequently messy film – it often feels like it’s about to fly off the rails at any point, yet somehow it never does. The film has often been described as a John Cassavetes clone, and it certainly has elements that recall that master filmmaker (and star of this movie) – but it’s more than that. The film takes May’s love of the awkward moment’s right to the breaking point – so far that it’s no longer funny. Or maybe it is. I still cannot quite figure that out.
In the film, Cassavetes stars as Mikey, a low-level gangster, who has pissed off the wrong people, and thinks that there is a contract out on his life because of it. During the paranoid break that opens the film, he calls his friend Nicky (Peter Falk) to come and help him. The majority of the film is these two men head out into the night, going one place after another and talking – mainly about seemingly meaningless bullshit. And yet, there is a definite tension between the two men. They are friends – or were at some point anyway. But bitter and resentment has developed between the two characters – particularly on the part of Falk’s Nicky, who no longer seems like Mikey very much, even if he tries to hide that resentment. For his part, Mikey seems friendlier to Nicky – and yet he’s also the one who does the most outwardly aggressive thing in the film. One of their stops is to a girlfriend of Mikey’s (who may or may not be a prostitute) – and as he forces Nicky to sit in the kitchen by himself, has sex with her with in the living room (it’s a wonderful shot that May holds for an impossibly long time, that simply gets more and more awkward and painful to watch).
A movie like this lives and dies on its performances – and luckily for May, she gets two great ones. Cassavetes is all nervous energy from beginning the end. The opening scenes are actually quite confusing – we have no idea who anyone is, and what the hell is going on, and yet Cassavetes carries those scenes with unrelenting intensity. He’s unhinged, bordering on over-the-top for much of the movie, but he holds it together. Falk is, for my money, even better – he’s as angry as Mikey, but it’s all buried, only to the surface more and more as the film moves along. Is Nicky really there as a friend – or does he have an ulterior motive? The other major role is Ned Beatty as a hitman, cruising the streets on the lookout for Mikey. It’s a role that’s necessary – without, there really is one reason for Mikey and Nicky to get together, and stay together, throughout the night – but it’s also a rather thankless one.
After the awkward first few minutes, the film is basically quite good for well more than an hour. When Cassavetes and Falk are needling each other, the film works wonderfully. But with about 20 minutes or so to go, the two of them split up, and the film pretty much grinds to a halt for a while. True, the final scene of the movie is a stunner – but for a while there, this film is which basically aimless from beginning to end forced, and it takes too long to get to its inevitable conclusion.
As with A New Leaf (and later, Ishtar), May had problems with the studio while making the film. She went way over schedule shooting, and then spent too long editing. The film shot in 1973, didn’t actually come out until 1976 – and even then, it wasn’t complete her version. If I’m going to be honest, I understand why the studio worried about this film – it is not a commercial film at all (there is a reason that while Cassavetes was a genius filmmaker, he had to continue his acting career – he didn’t make much money from his directing efforts – so how much would a film inspired by his work make). This isn’t an easy film to sit through in some ways – like A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, there is a lot of emotional violence throughout the film – but this time, it isn’t really cut with comedy. It makes you sit there and watch it. The film isn’t quite the lost masterpiece (it was never really lost – although for a long time, it was hard to see – and it’s not on any streaming platform in Canada that I know of – I had to track it down on DVD, although it was much thought about for years). The film is too messy, too confusing, too aimless to be truly great. And yet, when the film works, it’s as strong as anything May has done – and perhaps even more ambitious. She’s pushing her characters, and her situations, further here. She’s moving from romantic relationships into male friendship and how fraught with love, anger, jealously, rage and violence go into them. The fact that her problems with the studio pretty much doomed her directing career (she got one more chance – more than a decade later, and as we’ll get to next time, that didn’t go well), is sad. While I don’t think Mikey and Nicky is a masterpiece, what I really want is to see the next film the writer/director of this one had in her. Unfortunately, I don’t think we ever got that film.