The Lion King
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To these eyes, one of the most notable films of the '70s that still remains largely unknown and unheralded is “Mikey and Nicky,” Elaine May's astounding and virtually unclassifiable third feature film. It's probably better known today by most people for the wild behind-the-scenes stories surrounding its production than for the finished product, which disappeared virtually without a trace after its brief release in 1976. Yet after languishing in obscurity for decades, it has returned through a Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection. For those who have actually seen it before, watching it again will only confirm its greatness. But for those who have not seen it before, it will no doubt prove to be a revelation—a work so brash and consistently surprising that newcomers will wonder what the hell people could have been thinking four decades ago when they passed it over.
Set over the course of one long night, the film opens with low-level hood Nicky (John Cassavetes) barricading himself inside a fleabag hotel. It seems he was part of a scheme to steal some money from a syndicate-owned bank and after hearing the news that his partner in the scam, has been killed, he is now paranoid that there is a contract out on him as well. With nowhere else to turn, he calls (not for the first time, we can assume) Mikey (Peter Falk), a childhood friend who is slightly higher up in the local criminal hierarchy, and desperately summons him to come to his room to help. Mikey arrives and, after much cajoling and arguing, finally persuades Nicky to leave the room and come with him to a nearby bar. This is trickier than it seems, because Nicky is so paranoid that he is not entirely sure that his old friend hasn’t ratted him out. He even goes so far as to make him switch coats with him in case there is someone out there waiting to ambush him.
The joke is that, for all of his twitchiness, Nicky is actually right to suspect his friend because the minute that they get to the bar, Mikey goes to the pay phone to contact the hit man (Ned Beatty) hired to kill Nicky with their whereabouts.That seemingly simple plan gets blown all to hell when the hit man gets helplessly lost on his way to the bar and Nicky starts insisting on going to a variety of different places—an all-night movie, another bar, his mother’s grave, the apartments of his estranged wife and the woman he occasionally sleeps with. As the night goes on, Nicky’s flitting about takes on the form of a long and unspoken plea to his friend to somehow get him out of this one final jam by appealing to their long acquaintance. As for Mikey, he loves his pal but he also loves his wife and child and comfortable house in the suburbs and knows that they are all at risk if he lets Nicky go or even if his higher-ups think that he might be considering such a thing.
After having established herself as such a renowned comedic force, first on stage and then with her first two directorial efforts—“A New Leaf” (1971) and “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972)—there was presumably little reason to suspect that May would venture outside of her comfort zone for her next project. Additionally, the film, on the surface, sounds like it has all of the makings for a decent buddy comedy—sort of a mash-up of “The In-Laws” (1979) and “Midnight Run” (1988) that happened to come along years before either of those were made. However, while the film has many funny moments, especially in the early scenes, “Mikey and Nicky” is not a comedy in any traditional sense. Even as a gangster movie, it managed to defy all possible expectations—instead of giving the sentimental version of organized crime that was then all the rage thanks to the “Godfather” movies or the adrenaline-fueled approach that Martin Scorsese utilized in “Mean Streets” (1973) and would use again years later in “Goodfellas” (1990), her perspective, apparently inspired by people and incidents that she knew of from her own childhood in Philadelphia, was of the truly low-level members of the organized crime world, the ones who could be rubbed out in an instant without anyone noticing. Even the crimes at the center of the film are of a decidedly small scale—the scam that has put Nicky’s life on the line earned him about a thousand bucks while the hitman complains that he will barely break even on killing Nicky after expenses.
So what the hell is “Mikey and Nicky” anyway? It is, in fact, a dark and penetrating drama about friendship, loyalty, self-preservation, and the kind of empty machismo that would one day be referred to as “toxic masculinity.” Most of all, it is about betrayal, a concept that is the key thematic link that binds all of May’s films together. Each one revolves in some way around couples where one member secretly tries to betray the other—broke playboy Walter Matthau plots to kill his new wife, a klutzy heiress played by May herself, to grab her fortune in “A New Leaf,” deeply shallow Charles Grodin conspires to dump new wife Jeannie Berlin on their honeymoon to take up with gorgeous Cybill Shepherd in “The Heartbreak Kid” and best friends Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty are manipulated into selling each other out in “Ishtar”—but this film is her most penetrating and thought-provoking take on the subject. Although not a long movie by any standards, May manages to pack in an extraordinary amount of details about these characters and their long relationship that allows us to empathize with the characters no matter what they may do to each other or anyone else who happens to fall in their path over the course of events pictured here. Watching Falk and Cassavetes (whose long personal friendship adds an additional frisson to the material) as they alternately bond and antagonize each other is sometimes hilarious and sometimes horrifying, but anyone who has had a long friendship with someone will recognize the up-and-down relationship that May depicts here in such piercing detail.
With its seemingly loose plotting and the interplay between Falk and Cassavetes, many have suggested that “Mikey and Nicky” is essentially a long filmed improv session, but a close look at the film shows that cannot possibly be the case. This is film is as intricately plotted as one could hope for, and the intercutting between Mikey and Nicky’s nocturnal adventures and the hit man closing in on them is presented with precision. The film's genius is that May presents the material in a way that suggests the oddball rhythms of real life instead of grinding of gears needed to get from plot point A to B.
Take an early scene in which Mikey rushes to a nearby bodega to get some milk and cream for Nicky’s ulcer—the place has milk but no cream other than the little packets that come with the coffee. At first, Mikey gets involved in a bizarre negotiation with the counterman in order to acquire those cream packets—he’ll buy fifteen coffees and hold the coffee—but then explodes into a burst of violence that is all the more terrifying because it genuinely comes out of nowhere. This is a scene that was clearly (and brilliantly) written but it has a documentary-like feel. It's a sensation that permeates the entire film—even the scenes that might have bordered on cliche (such as Mikey and the hitman reporting to their superiors or Mikey and Nicky breaking into a cemetery with a bit of Laurel & Hardy-style slapstick) are presented in fresh and invigorating ways that always stress the situation's realism.
Of course, that realism came at a cost and for May, that price was pretty steep. When she had made “A New Leaf” for Paramount a few years earlier, she shot an enormous amount of footage and the studio eventually took it away from her, and chopped a lot of footage out of her preferred cut. The move so outraged her that she sued the studio in an effort to prevent its release. And with “The Heartbreak Kid,” which she only directed, she basically stuck to the script and while it remains the least personal of her films by a mile, it was also a substantial enough hit to inspire Paramount to take her on again to make “Mikey and Nicky.” However, what they did not anticipate was that May, working for the first time from a screenplay that was entirely of her own creation, would shoot hours and hours of footage in order to try and capture the kind of spontaneous behavior between Falk and Cassavetes that would help further inform the friendship that she was trying to illustrate. By the time the studio finally pulled the plug, she had reportedly shot 1.4 million feet of footage, more than doubled the budget and missed the deadline for turning in her version. What happened next was crazy enough it could inspire its own movie (ranging from lawsuits to the “disappearance” of two key reels of footage after Paramount took over the film) but the end result was disastrous to both the film—which was finally released in 1976 in a recut version—and to May personally, who would not direct another movie for a decade, until she was hired by Warren Beatty to write and direct “Ishtar.”
“Mikey and Nicky” may not be the funniest film in May’s oeuvre (that honor goes to “Ishtar,” one of the funniest and most politically astute American comedies of its era) but in many ways, I would argue that it is the key work of her directorial career. From its startling attempts to depict its main characters trying to find moments of genuine emotional intimacy despite their simmering distrust, to their equally uncomprehending attempts to communicate with the women in their lives, to the myriad ways in which even the most ordinary of situations can spin out of control, to one of the most unexpectedly devastating final scenes in the history of '70s cinema, this is a wild and exhilarating work that continues to astonish. Especially watching it today, May’s continued absence from the director’s chair (her only film in the wake of “Ishtar” was an “American Masters”documentary about Mike Nichols) will feel like even more of a waste of a supreme talent than it already was.
In fact, the one disappointing aspect about the “Mikey and Nicky” Blu-ray is May's absence, aside from her supervision on the 4K transfer. Granted, this is not exactly news that will come as a surprise to many, considering she has been so tight-lipped about her work over the years, but to not have her give some kind of background regarding the film and its tumultuous history does seem to be a bit of a lost opportunity. Instead, the supplements include a new featurette with interviews with distributor Julian Schlossberg, who reissued the film in May’s preferred cut for a brief theatrical run in the mid-'80s, and actress Joyce Van Patten, (who makes a brief but devastating appearance towards the end as Nicky’s wife) giving a brief history on its background. There are also interviews with critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey attesting as to the importance of both the film and May, a 1976 audio interview with Peter Falk talking up the film, and vintage ads that tried (none too successfully, to be honest) to sell a tricky film to the masses. Finally, there is an informative essay penned by critic Nathan Rabin. Although one wishes that there might have been a wider array of supplements, the Criterion Blu-ray does underscore the point that “Mikey and Nicky” is indeed a treasure that is positively ripe for rediscovery.
“Mikey and Nicky” is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. To order your copy, click here
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