[Elaine May, a gifted comic artist,] has chosen to make something impossible: a film about two horrid fellows alternately abusing and greasily cajoling each other (and equally repulsive either way) when not getting into fights with other men or, for a little variety, maltreating the hapless women in their lives. Awful as this premise is, there is worse to come. One of these two old buddies may have a contract out on his life; the other is trying either to save or to finger him. Our sympathies are manipulated in such a way that we must keep switching allegiances: Now we are dragged into feeling pity for an utter louse, now we are forced to recoil at the creepiness of a dedicated friend.
The idea seems to be to show us the relativity of emotional truths in a world where good and bad have become Gordianly entangled; where even the decent, long-suffering women are also frumps or doormats whom the swinish men exploit by means of that drop of charm or pathos mixed in with their meanness. It does not begin to work. Not just because you cannot be simultaneously Damon Runyon and Dostoevski, but also because you can't make us care about people whose sweetness is virtually indistinguishable from their beastliness, so that the range of feelings with which we view their interminable, degrading squabbles extends only from distaste to boredom. Can you imagine two hours' worth of film about love, hate, and death among the cockroaches? And even that might be more interesting than this endless dawdling among people whose very souls are sweaty under their collars.
What truly sets one's teeth on edge, though, is that Miss May cannot forgo that cuteness which, when used aptly in zany, satirical comedy, adds an extra flavor to the zestful brew. Superimposed on this morose and morbid mess, however, it is unendurable—rather like a cloying perfume fighting a losing battle with an acrid body odor….
One becomes acutely aware of Miss May's endless, irresolute editing, of her unhealthy inability to be finished with something, to let go. On a more elementary level yet, the film never gives us the much needed exposition that would clue us in about who these characters really are, what their work is, and what Nicky has done or not done to incur his boss's lethal wrath….
The only way to describe Mikey and Nicky is as a celluloid death wish, a desperate challenge to the audience to dare like anything about the film…. [Miss May's writing and direction are] not so much created as exuded or secreted, like some particularly nasty discharge. (p. 55)
John Simon, "May, Bogdanovich, and Streisand: Varieties of Death Wish," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1977 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 10, No. 2, January 10, 1977, pp. 55-7.∗