Mikey and Nicky is an intriguing detour for Elaine May, who wrote and directed this actor’s showcase about a friendship between two low-level mob men, one of whom suspects that a hit has been put out on him.
At the beginning of the film, we wonder if Nicky (John Cassavetes) is just being paranoid. Holed up in a dumpy hotel room, treating a stomach ulcer with more alcohol, he calls his friend Mikey (Peter Falk) in a panic: “I’m in trouble.” We eventually learn that these two have been friends since childhood, but there’s an open-ended fluidity to their dynamic at the start. At times Mikey treats Nicky like a son (“Open the door,” he soothingly says as he tries to feed Nicky an antacid tablet). At other times they tease each other like brothers. And then there is the touching moment when a distraught Nicky leans into Mikey, and Mikey massages the back of his neck with the gentleness of a lover.
Indeed, Falk and Cassavetes are so locked into each other that the movie feels claustrophobic. When Mikey says he’s going to leave the hotel room to get milk and will be back in 10 minutes, Nicky tells him that if he’s a second late, he won’t let him back in. Mikey goes flying down the street because in the insular world that is their complicated relationship, Nicky’s demand has become law.
Cassavetes is far more performative than Falk — meaning he registers more as an actor playing fast and loose in an improvisational manner than as an actual character. You could say that this is because Nicky — a bigger personality with self-destructive tendencies — is in a sense always performing. But consider the way Falk handles one of Mikey’s “big” scenes, an angry encounter with a server at a diner. Mikey’s sudden burst of violence is scarily instinctive, aimed only at the man whose throat he’s grabbing and not at the unseen movie audience.
We understand both the gulf that exists between Mikey and Nicky and the closeness that they share.
Falk is even better when he remains still, watching Cassavetes with varying degrees of bemusement, disbelief and frustration. I especially liked the moment in which Cassavetes casually blows smoke rings in a bar, while Falk sits across from him at the table, a glint in his famously wayward eye. Without a word being uttered, we understand both the gulf that exists between Mikey and Nicky and the closeness that they share.
The question remains, however, whether Mikey and Nicky might have been something greater in the hands of another director. Clearly May is invested in the material — she wrote it — and deserves credit for creating a fruitfully improvisational atmosphere. Yet she doesn’t leave a very distinct signature here, such as the social satire she brought to A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid. And in terms of craft, Mikey and Nicky actually represents a step backwards. Aside from focusing issues and even an instance of an errant boom mike, the movie evidences no coherent strategy for filming the volatile interactions between these two men. (The framing of a shot in a prostitute’s apartment, with Nicky and the woman in the foreground darkness and Mikey in the background, standing in the illuminated kitchen, is a rare exception.)
None of this is meant to imply that May should have stuck with comedy. In fact, the way Mikey and Nicky naturally spirals from a goofy buddy flick to a sickening tragedy is one of its most impressive feats. The final scenes have a queasy inevitability to them, as events conspire to force Mikey and Nicky to confront the fundamental truth of their relationship, as well as the limits of loyalty. See it with a friend.