Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Mikey and Nicky is an interesting minimalist character study of two low-rent
hoods on a particularly fateful Manhattan night. The making of the film became much bigger news
than the final product as director Elaine May ran up huge production bills and kept shooting
for a record time while working out finer points of mobster psychology with her two stars, Peter
Falk and John Cassavetes. The amazing thing is that the film is neither bad or misconceived.
It plays very well for a movie that should have been shot in five weeks with a skeleton crew.
Nicky (John Cassavetes) is holed up in a cheap hotel room, hiding from his mob boss
Dave Resnick (Sanford Meisner) because he's been caught stealing money. He calls his only trusted
friend, childhood pal and fellow wise guy Mikey (Peter Falk) to somehow spirit him out of the city
before Resnick's hit men can find him. They don't get very far, as Nicky is so paranoid he suspects
his old buddy has turned him in; they drift from bars to cafes and drop in on casual girlfriends
and Nicky's estranged wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten). Instead of hiding or running they wander
the empty streets, making themselves open targets for Resnick's hired killer, Kinney (Ned Beatty).
The seventies' run of director-fueled American art films was already coming to a close when Elaine
May spent a ton of Paramount's money making Mikey and Nicky; Jaws had pointed the way
to the future: Audience-friendly event movies about upbeat adventure and technical showmanship.
Elaine May's gritty gangster saga
is more like Odd Man Out or The Friends of Eddie Coyle in its depiction of a pair of
grubby losers involved in sordid goings-on. It all takes place in one night as sort of a wise guy's
American Graffiti. The protagonists are their own worst enemies. Nicky is not only
paranoid, he's spitefully contemptous of everyone around. Mikey receives friendly treatment only
to the extent that he goes along with Nicky's every foolish wish. For his part, Mikey reveals his
own distrust and resentment of his best friend, who hasn't shared his good times with Resnick or
recommended MIkey for any good jobs.
Nicky is the least trustworthy of the two, but Mikey and Nicky makes no such distinctions, as
Mikey is only marginally less eager to take advantage of people. What they really are is infantile;
Nicky especially seems to think that being a hood allows him to be selfish at all times, including
claiming the right to doublecross his dangerous bosses in the mob. They're exactly what you'd expect
in the lower ranks of organized crime.
The film is completely character-driven and its best aspect is the acting. Falk is
convincing as a nervous pal trying to get his buddy to do the smart thing, and Cassavetes' frantic
punk jumps to new levels of paranoid aggression every time he gets stressed out. Steering
away from the high-falutin' allegory of Odd Man Out, Elaine May's story lets the two stagger
through the mean streets but never suggests that they represent anything beyond their own
A frequent remark about Mikey and Nicky is that it looks like a Cassavetes picture. If
it weren't for the lack of a loose camera or scenes built solely from free-form improvisation,
there would be no difference. May succeeds with the intense character interaction and definitely tries to
impart the feeling that anything can happen, but it's all within a tightly constructed story arc.
Whether it works or not depends on one's enjoyment of two hours spent with some very unstable and
sometimes unpleasant characters. They do some pretty repellent things, especially their visit with
one of Nicky's girlfriends, Nellie (Carol Grace). Nellie is Nicky's favorite "quickie" - overaged
and not too bright, she quickly succumbs to his sweet-talk on her living room floor. As is his nature,
Nicky has no sense of limits; when he's done he sends Mikey in with the advice to "just tell her
you love her." It's very ugly and completely credible.
The movie really doesn't have a sense of humor beyond the sick laughter of its heroes, but Ned Beatty
does inject a certain amusement into his role of the put-upon hard-luck hit man who can't seem to
connect with his target. He has to worry about his car being towed because he's too cheap
to hire a wheel man. William Hickey
(The Boston Strangler) and Sanford
Meisner are quietly menacing as the gang bosses, and M. Emmet Walsh has a nice bit as a bus driver
pummeled by our two 'boys' just for fun. Rose Arrick and Joyce Van Patten are also credible as the
wives; Arrick figures in the only daylight scene, a starkly unpleasant betrayal. At
the end, we are left with a gripping portrait of two very misspent lives.
Again, if this were a low-budget film Hollywood might have embraced it as an independent-styled
thriller willing to tell a story. In the extras, the producer says that May exposed over a million
feet of 35mm negative to put her 105 minutes of drama on the screen. At that shooting ratio, a
blind drunk ought to be able to come up with as much entertainment.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Mikey and Nicky presents a great-looking transfer of a
feature that either slipped away or was encouraged to elope from Paramount's control. The enhanced
transfer plays great on a large screen without any detail loss in the mostly dark nighttime photography.
There are some good liner notes by Jonathan Rosenbaum and two interview docus, both with producer
Michael Hausman. On the first he tells the production story, which includes a lot of guessing because
he was completely shut out of May's day-long discussions with her actors and had zero control over
her refusal to follow a shooting schedule, or even consider one. The second docu joins Hausman with
cinematographer Victor J. Kemper. In the beginning, Cassavetes was doing some of the shooting himself,
which resulted in dailies where dozens of film rolls screened with no image on them at all!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mikey and Nicky rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Two interview documentaries
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 16, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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