Elaine May is not one to shy from disreputable characters, and Mikey and Nicky, her homage to the directorial style of the film’s star John Cassavettes, certainly features a few. Cassavettes plays the wimpy and erratic Nicky, who stole money from his Mafia boss and is desperately trying to escape the hit that has naturally been called in on him. Peter Falk plays Mikey, his childhood friend and fellow mobster, upon whom Nicky calls for salvation.
Despite their personal history, Mikey and Nicky greet each other with palpable (and ultimately warranted) skepticism, as both men prove to be cowardly, selfish beasts. Throughout the course of an evening, Mikey takes Nicky from one supposedly safe spot to the next while Nicky’s paranoia gets the better of him. Alternately cocky and unsure, Nicky brashly wields a gun yet sobs about his fear of death, while Mikey checks in regularly with his wife Annie (Rose Arrick), who seems both understanding of and purposefully oblivious to the murder plot her husband is enmeshed in.
May’s female characters here are despicable in their own way—in their subservience to these shameless, immature men. There are no moral standbys to be found here. Nicky stops by his girlfriend Nellie’s (Carol Grace) apartment, only to cut off her discussion about politics and literature with frequent groping. Despite her supposed worldliness, she is easily swayed, as is Nicky’s wife (Joyce Van Patten). She tries to kick him out, but after a few sweet words admits to loving him. May’s portrayal of this Philadelphia underworld is one plagued by insecurity and doubt, where men run their lives into the ground with false bravado and the women shamefully follow.
Mikey and Nicky is a gritty, expertly tense contribution to 70s cinema, though it requires some strong willpower to withstand the purposefully banal dialogue and despicable actions of the film’s protagonists. Yet what May does borrow from Cassavettes is a harsh and humane look at some ugly-hearted people, men and women alike. Both Falk and Cassavettes were free to improvise in a manner similar to Cassavettes’s own cinema-verite aesthetic (though Micky and Nicky doesn’t quite hold up to his own Husbands or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). As long as one is willing to leave the theater feeling unsettled, this film is worth a shot merely for its laudable portrayal of the lawless life and its ability to lead even the closest friendships awry.