Mikey and Nicky (1976)

*. I didn’t like this movie much at all, and I find its status among critics a bit surprising. I think this is probably because it’s seen as representative of a style of gritty independent filmmaking that we now identify as a golden age in American cinema. This despite the fact that it wasn’t really an independent film (it was a Paramount production) and cost quite a bit to make, mainly due to Elaine May wanting to shoot an enormous amount of film (reportedly over a million feet). It’s one of those movies that only looks cheap.
*. Then there’s the story of how it was taken out of May’s hands by the studio, which had the effect of making May into a martyr for her art on the order of Orson Welles with Touch of Evil. But again I’m not sure she was the real victim here. From what I can gather, and from watching her approved version, she may have been behaving unreasonably and Paramount were only trying to cut their losses.

*. We open with gangster Nick (John Cassavetes) sweating it out in a hotel room and I’m only thinking one thing: where is Norman Mailer? Isn’t this the same room we were stuck in for all of Wild 90? I only partly jest. There is a lot of the same feel as in Mailer’s little movie here, from the sense of seeing tough guys behind the scenes to the repetitive and inane dialogue that sounds improvised. In fact I think some of it was improvised, as Mays just let her actors go with a scene. There’s a basic premise, and obvious structural motifs (the nighttime journey through a kind of underworld, including a trip to a cemetery, and the way the film begins and ends with Mike and Nick hammering on different doors), but within these parameters things just seem to wander from one set piece to another, none of them connected to much of a narrative spine.
*. In brief, I don’t think it’s a particularly original story, or presented in a very compelling way. As I’ve already noted, it looks cheap, in terms of everything from the lighting to the choppy editing. And I want to be clear I’m not talking about deliberately abrupt editing but shots that simply don’t match up.
*. The two leads, Cassavetes and Peter Falk, often get a lot of credit but I thought the former guilty of overacting and the latter miscast. This is a shame since I think the character of Mike is the only interesting thing in the movie. I wanted to know more about him, what it was that made him turn from being a lifelong sidekick and schmuck to finally going after his revenge. But he’s just left up in the air. Given that he’s made his break with Nick before the film starts it’s a movie about betrayal where the betrayal has already taken place, which means his character doesn’t travel any kind of arc. Does he feel guilty at the end? Why?

*. Does May bring any new perspective to the table as a woman? Yes, according to the essays on the film I’ve read, but I find her vision of “toxic masculinity” little different from what you get in other gangster/buddy movies, and the female characters are all left pretty vapid and vague. There’s the hooker and then there are the wives. I don’t get the sense of any new take on gender relations here.
*. I wonder how May wanted us to see the ending. It strikes me as being comic, what with Nick trying to wave off Beatty’s assassin while whining to Mike about how he’s getting a perforated ulcer. This is ridiculous, and I assume intentionally so. But is the film a comedy? Not in my book.
*. So it’s not a favourite. As far as such pictures go I found it both overdrawn and underwhelming. Though filmed in 1973 it wasn’t released until 1976, the same year Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie came out, which I like a lot more and which I suspect cost a lot less to make. Mikey and Nicky is definitely worth seeing, but I don’t cut it as much slack as others do. It is representative of a certain style and period, but I don’t think it’s first-rate in any department.

2 thoughts on “Mikey and Nicky (1976)

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