The first hour of Mikey and Nicky is trying to decide if you’re going to like either of them. Because they don’t deserve sympathy, it’s just whether you’re going to like them. It’s possible to be sympathetic to Peter Falk (Mikey) while still liking John Cassavettes (Nicky). The movie runs two hours, there’s maybe fifteen minutes where you can do both those things simultaneously. And there’s time for being sympathetic to Falk, liking Cassavettes. Feeling guilty about both emotions. Mikey and Nicky doesn’t manipulate the audience–it’s very deliberate about how it sets things up, but the one twist comes really early on, with some exquisite foreshadowing from director May, both in the film and her script. And the actors too. There’s always a lot going on in the film for the two leads. The whole movie–not the plot–hinges on how their relationship develops (in a crisis) over the two hours.
See, they’re both in the mob. Though more like work for the mob. It’s not too important. When the mobsters do show up–Sanford Meisner and William Hickey–it’s one of May’s almost straight gags. The film’s full of them, especially in the first act when Falk is trying to get Cassavettes to get out of town and Cassavettes won’t leave his hotel room because he’s been locked up in there for a few days and nuts. As the film goes on–it takes place over like nine hours–the characters get tireder and tireder, more and more stressed. Sometimes it’s with new characters who come in–once Mikey and Nicky starts introducing the women in the men’s lives, it doesn’t stop. They’re completely absent for the first almost half and then the rest of the movie is basically all about how these astonishingly broken and awful men abuse the women in their lives. It doesn’t become the a plot–which is about Falk trying to get Cassavettes out of town before out-of-town and unpleasant hit man Ned Beatty can get him. Of course, they don’t know how close Beatty is getting or even his identity. Cassavettes goes in and out of paranoia for the first forty minutes or so. The way the character development drives the subplots is phenomenal. Mikey and Nicky has some unstable elements–but May’s gently savage about character shifts and plot developments are always wondrous. Like, Cassavettes goes from being this potential scumbag at the beginning to this possibly likable one to a piece of crap as an aside, while family man Falk calling home is the initial scene focus. And the movie’s just got done with the big reveal. Everything else is fallout for the audience, but not the characters, which is just another layer for the audience. It’s breathtakingly.
Most of the movie is about whether or not Cassavettes is going to get killed; you can easily spend a third of it not caring, but also a third of it where you hope he does because he really deserves it. The film takes these vague caricature roles–background thugs–and fleshes them out in miserable detail. The film’s always aware of the crime genre and it respects it, but tries not to interact with it. It’s not against genre, it’s just not genre. At all. It’s comedy. Really, really, really dark comedy.
There are some smiles and maybe even a laugh at the beginning when it’s Falk and Cassavettes kind of being silly. You’re not sympathetic to Cassavettes, somewhat inherently, so you can laugh at him freaking out. But once the film introduces the women… well, you’re rooting for him to be in terror. Because about halfway through the film, Cassavettes takes Falk up to Carol Grace’s apartment. To have some drinks, be mean to her, but also for sex. Grace and the other two main supporting actresses have the hardest parts in the film. They’ve got to create a character where the stars–in performance, direction, script–don’t let them have any oxygen. It’s really unpleasant, because May doesn’t show them any sympathy. The film’s narrative distance to the toxic masculinity it showcases never wavers.
Joyce Van Patten plays Cassavettes’s wife and she ought to have the best performance in the film but there are all these visual flubs during her big scene. John Carter and Sheldon Kahn’s editing averages to be, well, pretty average but when they’ve got to deal with mismatched footage–from apparently two drastically different takes on the scene–it’s not good. They don’t get away with it and somehow they emphasize the mismatch, which is a bummer for the scene given how great Van Patten’s been until things get shaky. It still works for the film, because the film’s not about Van Patten at all. Except in how she’s a victim, just like Grace, just like Rose Arrick as Falk’s wife. See, Arrick shows up early when Falk’s calling home to check in. She’s established. And getting the reveal on her life towards the end is another of the film’s gut punches.
Gorgeous photography from… wait for it… Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Jerry File, and Victor J. Kemper. The styles never clash–five photographers is a shock–and the film always looks right for what it needs to do at a given time. According to IMDb, Ballard did the last sequence and he does great work (he gets to bring in the daylight).
Also impressive is John Strauss’s score. Even when it’s excessive, it always fits. May’s got a great looking and sounding picture, just one with never great cuts.
Of the actors, Cassavettes is better more often, but Falk’s got some amazing scenes. Falk’s best scenes are better than any of Cassavettes’s scenes. Beatty’s fine as the hit man. It’s like an extended cameo. May plays Beatty more for laughs, but mean ones. There’s a lot of meanness to Mikey and Nicky.
So the film gets to the third act with a whole bunch of baggage, with the baggage getting heavier later on as the film transitioned from the sort of black comedy “adventure” or quest to the reflective visits to the three destroyed women. And May delivers on the finish perfectly. It’s so good. Even though the editors screw it up a little.
Written and by Elaine May; directors of photography, Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard, Jack Cooperman, Victor J. Kemper, and Jerry File; edited by John Carter and Sheldon Kahn; music by John Strauss; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Michael Hausman; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Peter Falk (Mikey), John Cassavetes (Nicky), Ned Beatty (Kinney), Rose Arrick (Annie), Carol Grace (Nellie), William Hickey (Sid Fine), Sanford Meisner (Dave Resnick), Joyce Van Patten (Jan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Bus Driver).