Mikey and Nicky (1976)

Without question I can go on record as saying that this is one of my favorite films and having made that public record I feel no real need to say that this piece will be unbiased. No piece is unbiased, they are all opinion, experiences but into words and while I am sure both myself and this journal’s co-author do are best to give a rather balanced account of the film, calling them as we see them, I know that I can’t speak about Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky without excitement for the film. It is truly an emotional piece of wonder.

Far from perfect technically and not exactly the coolest film that ever flickered on a screen Mikey and Nicky has long been a closet classic, something not hip enough to be a cult classic, but one that has received a decent following thanks to it’s energetic cast of John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Ned Beatty, and a handful of character actors. Set on the rain soaked streets of Philadelphia this gripping crime drama revolves around the title characters. Best friends since they were born they now find their friendship coming to a sad end as Nicky (Cassavetes) needs to get out of town before a hitman (Beatty) can kill him for pilfering money from some local gangsters. Mikey (Falk) is the only friend Nicky has left, but Nicky isn’t much of a friend and even though Mikey agrees to help Nicky get out of town, Mikey’s true intentions are less than friendly.

Elaine May’s interest is more in the breakdown of a male friendship than the criminal elements that give this film a familiar feel and place it a genre more comfortable with male fantasies than male psychological exploration. Her attention to the strains and struggles that complicate a male friendship dated with fond memories and modern strife brought on by one friend’s destructive urge to constantly hold the upperhand in a relationship. May’s crime drama is a rather mature film that deft deals with often hidden male emotions, obscured by razor sharp comedy, that surprisingly goes unnoticed upon first viewing. It is only after subsequent viewings, once the plot’s twist and turns are well-known May’s rapid fire comedic lines come to the surface.

Having seen Mikey and Nicky a few times, okay maybe twenty or more time, it’s hard to want to classify this film as a comedy. In some ways the mixture of comedy and crime make the film reminiscent of a more well-known film, namely Pulp Fiction. The connection are not overt, but some long stretches between the two films do help to show brilliance of Mikey and Nicky, while not wholly undercutting the cult of cool that surrounds Tarantino’s sophomore effort. First, both films find central characters in two “gangsters”. Though Cassavetes and Falk are nothing like Travolta and Jackson, the focus of each pairings conversation seems to be friendly banter. While Cassavetes and Falk have a long shared history from which they can recall many good and bad times, Travolta and Jackson appear to have dropped straight out of the stratosphere. They can only relate to one another through pop culture. Even more similar is the focus on beloved watches. In Mikey and Nicky, the watch is a gift given to Mikey from his dad, but Mikey doubts how much his father wanted him to have his watch and he has an easier time admitting that his own father loved Nicky. He can’t easily admit that his father loved him. In Pulp Fiction the watch is a favorite possession of Bruce Willis’ character and the audience sees Christopher Walken rambling some grossly funny story about the lengths that Willis’ father went to get his much cherish watch to his son. The memorable thing here is not on the love between father and son, but the over-the-top story that delivers the watch to Willis. Neither of these arguments are enough to argue that Tarantino was pilfering or homaging Mikey and Nicky, but it is enough to show that for difference between the two films is the difference between men and boys. Only men can understand Mikey and Nicky. Any boy with a basic knowledge of Pulp Fiction is capable of understand Tarantino’s glossier crime/comedy, but to understand May’s film you have had to lived a little.

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