Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mikey and Nicky (1976)



          This hyper-realistic crime drama should hit my ’70s art-cinema sweet spot: It’s a quiet character piece about low-level hoods, grounded in energetic performances by two creative actors with a long offscreen history. It’s also a novelty as the only drama helmed by the great Elaine May, best known for her work in the realm of sophisticated light comedy. So, why doesn’t Mikey and Nicky work for me? In a word: Cassavetes. I realize it’s heresy to criticize the father of American indie cinema, but Cassavetes’ onscreen persona was grating at the best of times, and he’s downright insufferable here. It’s not just that he’s playing a pain-in-the-ass character; the problem is that Cassavetes treats every scene like an acting-class exercise, spinning into seemingly improvised riffs and repeating dialogue over and over again, presumably while awaiting the “inspiration” to say something different. Actors may find this stuff endlessly fascinating, but there’s a reason films usually capture results instead of process—nobody needs to see the sausage getting made.
          As the writer-director of this sloppy enterprise, May has to take the blame for letting her leading man run away with the movie to such an extent that Mikey and Nicky feels like one of Cassavetes’ own directorial endeavors. It’s a shame May didn’t exercise more discipline, since the premise could have led to something exciting. Small-time crook Nicky (Cassavetes) is convinced he’s on a Mafia hit list, so he reaches out to his long-suffering best friend, Mikey (Peter Falk)—and that early moment is when the story goes off the rails. It’s never clear what Nicky wants from Mikey, except perhaps companionship, since Nicky shoots down every suggestion Mikey makes for avoiding danger. Instead of running to safety, Nicky drags Mikey along for an evening of boozing and whoring, with more than a few pit stops for childish tantrums and emotional meltdowns. Nicky’s behavior is so obnoxious that it’s tempting to cheer when Mikey finally asks the obvious question: “Don’t you have any notion of anything that goes on outside your own head?”
          Appraising May’s contributions to Mikey and Nicky is almost impossible, since she seems like a passive observer capturing Cassvaetes’ tempestuous “genius” on film; stylistically, there’s nothing recognizable here from May’s other pictures. And befitting its on-the-fly nature, Mikey and Nicky is fraught with technical errors. In one scene, a boom operator is plainly visible in the mirror of a hotel room supposedly occupied only by the title characters. These amateur-hour mistakes are exacerbated by the fact that supporting actors including Ned Beatty, William Hickey, and M. Emmet Walsh are wasted in nothing roles. Mikey and Nicky gets all sorts of credit for trying to be something, and doubtless many discerning viewers will find admirable qualities. However, if there’s any great redeeming value buried in the self-indulgent muck, it was lost on me.

Mikey and Nicky: LAME

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