Mikey and Nicky ★★★★

(My review for Much Ado About Cinema’s Criterion Channel series)

The inaugural Criterion Channel pick for the first week of February was writer/director Elaine May’s 1976 Mikey and Nicky, a character-driven “Guys Bein’ Dudes” gangster drama. Taking place over the span of a single night, the film opens in classic 70s style with a shifty-eyed Nicky (auteur dreamboat John Cassavetes) alone in a hotel room, clinging to a gun and lighting a cigarette. He’s a small-time bookie who’s just stolen money from the mob, and he’s waiting for his childhood friend, Mikey (Peter Falk), to save him from a panic-induced ulcer attack.

When Mikey arrives, he holds Nicky while he sobs, then lies him down flat on his back to force-feed him an antacid. “Nick, I know you for 30 years. You call me up on that phone, you say ‘Come right away,’ in that voice, I bring Gelusil,” he says calmly before chewing one himself in solidarity. It’s a brilliant hook that establishes the best friends’ characterizations perfectly: Mikey is steady and paternal while Nicky is neurotic and vulnerable. And you just know their story is gonna end with a gut-shot.

Rather than explore Nicky’s initial crime itself, the film explores the psychological aftermath. As the night uncoils, Nicky grows more and more restless with the knowledge that he’s going to be killed, and it’s made abundantly clear that these men are meant to be perceived as morally repugnant — they cheat on their wives, slap women, and the latter impulsively incites a fight at a Black bar — but their chemistry is so compelling, so undeniably magnetic that you can’t help but root for them anyways. Cassavetes and Falk’s intimately layered performances stem from a history of working together, which shows through their dauntlessness to boldly embrace the art of physicality; the men, the frenetic Cassavetes in particular, utilize every tendon as they wrestle each other and race through the late-night streets of Philadelphia.

Of course, they’re aided by May’s whip-smart script and careful direction, imbuing upon these abhorrent protagonists a primal empathy that’s tricky for antiheroic crime flicks to nail. May’s background as one half of an improv comedy duo with legendary director Mike Nichols also informed her technique: her constantly rolling camera ensured that reaction shots could linger, the actors could have breathing room for spontaneity, and the drama could unfold naturally. In fact, May shot so much footage, 1.4 million ft. of film to be exact, that her record was only recently broken by Damien Chazelle’s 1.7 million ft. for First Man.

The production was further troubled by May’s going $2.5 million over budget, and she even hid the rolls of film so Paramount couldn’t meddle during post-production. This lead to her developing a reputation for being “difficult,” and as a result, May didn’t direct another film for a decade. It’s important to note that the careers of male directors seem to be relatively unaffected by the label “difficult” — even after being recorded publicly screaming misogynistic expletives at Lily Tomlin on-set in 2004, David O. Russell went on to be nominated for five Oscars. Bohemian Rhapsody just won three.

The historical injustice of May’s marred directing career paired with the film’s long-lasting influence on the crime genre (the similarities it shares with Reservoir Dogs are hard to ignore) made Mikey & Nicky an impeccable choice for the inaugural Criterion Channel pick of the week. Though it’s no longer streaming on the channel, it is available for free (with a library card!) on Kanopy.

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