Criterion Channel Movie of the Week: ‘Mikey and Nicky’

On November 29th, 2018, FilmStruck was killed. FilmStruck was a movie streaming app that specialized in actually curating a library of must-sees. It including offerings from the Criterion Collection, Turner Classic Movies, and Warner’s older content. It was great for any aspiring cinephile that needed to watch the classic greats that all other movies get compared to. For better or worse. I loved it, and I used it for nothing but first time watches. It was depressing to find out that it was too niche to be considered worthy by as large company as Warner Brothers. WB has their own exclusive streaming service planned, however, Criterion Collection, the DVD company that curates must-see films, has their own planned as well. It is due to go live on April 8th of this year in the US and Canada (sorry everywhere else). If you are a charter member (which I am) you get to use a “Movie of the Week” beta version.

The first movie is Mikey and Nicky.

The greatest thing that came out of my use of FilmStruck was discovering the directorial efforts of John Cassavetes. Cassavetes was ahead of his time, focusing on improvisation like proto-mumblecore. They aren’t the kind of movies that you can quote with your friends, but you walk away from it with these deep seeded feelings of empathy. It’s like watching bare naked emotions. I’ve only seen 5 out of his 12 films, and I am hungry for more. I want more of what this movie feels like. John Cassavetes is just an actor in Mikey and Nicky (He’s Nicky), but the movie feels very indebted to his trademark style.

It is actually directed by Elaine May, who only ever directed 4 features. I would guess that the script has a lot more structure than a Cassavetes one. It requires a lot of moving around the city that would need extra strategizing. I find it hard to imagine she often pointed the camera at a scene and said “just be in the moment.” You get that feeling though. The dialog is very mumbly. Falk and Cassavetes have this great way of speaking to each other. They aren’t always waiting for the other person to stop before they start. The overlap lines and repeat lines. They ask the other to repeat something because they didn’t hear it. Maybe all that was scripted, but that feels like an in the moment move. It lends the whole movie an extra layer of authenticity, especially considering the esoteric genre.

May sets it up like a classic crime yarn of the 70s. Mikey (played by Peter Falk, a close friend of John Cassavetes) gets a call from a manic Nicky. Nicky is paranoid and freaking out because he believes there is a hit out on him because he stole money from a crime boss. The funny thing is, he’s right. Mikey, per usual, reluctantly agrees to help him out. What starts out as a simple “get out of town” mission turns into a “lost in New York” (the movie actually takes place in Phillie) style montage of drinking, adventuring, and emotional outbursts. It is much less reminiscent of something like Taxi Driver or The Warriors and ends up having more in common with Scorsese’s After Hours. They bounce from nightlife spot to nightlife spot where their personalities continue to clash with each other and eventually spill out onto anyone unlucky enough to be poisoned by their nasty atmosphere.

And their atmosphere is especially nasty. The movie is brimming with sexism and racism that feels very period appropriate but with a much rustier edge than we would normally experience it. May is never apologizing for these guys’ bad behavior. She is simply putting it on display almost as if she is outing these guys for being shitheads. Falk and Cassavetes have a chummy chemistry unlike few others, but not even that could get these characters to be considered likable. I almost hit a breaking point when desperate Nicky suggested they go visit a lady friend that he characterized as easy. Mikey sits silently in a kitchen while Nicky has his way with her. Afterward, Nicky tags in Mikey who gets unceremoniously rejected. He then tries to force himself on her and ends up hitting her for even trying to fight back. These guys are never not looking for a fight. They are as toxic as you can get. It is a surprisingly strong indictment of volatile machismo from an era that often sought to establish grungy ne’er-do-wells as heroes.

Ultimately, May exposes these guys to be the man-babies they really are, completely unprepared to face the world as adults. They are being stalked by a gunman, but they are playing slapsies on the city bus, after all.