Stanley Kauffmann

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 839

[Mikey and Nicky is an] odd, biting, grinning, sideways-scuttling rodent of a picture….

[The plot] sounds like the schema of a "character" crime picture, a so-called film noir, particularly since most of it is shadowy. (Virtually all of it takes place at night.) It is those things, but it is several things more. The first additional thing is, incredibly, that it's comic. Actual laughs are scattered, but the overall view of the two men is through a prism of comic detail. The script is by Elaine May, who also directed. Her previous scripts A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid, both adapted from other people's stories, were ungainly and ill-focused. Mikey and Nicky is her own work, and she sees its grimness through her well-known comic temperament. Nicky's neuroses, the squabbles, the horseplay that Mikey has to sustain in order to keep credible to Nicky, even the put-upon-drudge dialogue of the hit man, are seen by May as a kind of gallows-humor vaudeville. We get no sense that she thought up the plot and then decided to do it at a blackly comic angle: this is the way she saw the moral swamp from the start.

And the nature of the vaudeville, the fact that it's mostly a double act by two men, is also part of the film's difference. Among the most deeply ingrained American myths is the one of the two male friends…. May, possibly with bitter amusement at all those decades of male glorification of male bonding, may have wanted to treat this now-classic pair as latently homoerotic (one screws a woman while the other waits—just barely vicarious homosexuality); she may have wanted to show the hatred and envy she sees under this noble concept. (Envy and rejection are what motivate Mikey's betrayal.)…

Further to this theme, few will miss the point that the very title Mikey and Nicky echoes the name Mike Nichols, who was May's partner for years in a celebrated "mixed" double act. The play on Nichols' name may have no more significance than Orson Welles' private joke on the last name of that dear old Irish actor Whitford Kane. On the other hand May did choose this particular joke. Under this film's title the double act of male duplicities takes on some additional wicked gleam.

The overall shape of the story, a life in a night with the picture ending at dawn, is not new, which of course May knows. Surely she knows the peak antecedent La Notte. Whether or not she was consciously using Antonioni as a general model, she too has her "couple" recapitulate their lives together and, more important, delineate the society around them, to which they have succumbed. The two men move through as wide a range of memory and experience as could be credible in one night…. And underneath it all is the betrayal, mocking the bath in nostalgia, as we feel Mikey tacitly justifying it to himself out of Nicky's supposed rejection of his love.

The film moves from station to station like a medieval morality play except that there is absolutely no morality. Every person in the picture, from the racket boss, who is apparently a lawyer, to the hit man, who complains about the money he's losing on this job, accepts the immoral landscape of his life as the norm. (p. 20)

But Mikey and Nicky is not a satire, nothing so fundamentally benevolent…. May has plunged her camera right into the sewer and closed the cover. The sewer creatures, harsh or less harsh, loyal by sewer standards or not, are seen as merely topographical gradations within the pit. The only hint of irony—there is no compassion—is between the author outside the work and the work itself.

May overstates the case, probably consciously, by telling us that these people "are" the world, but she must feel that, actually or symbolically, they represent a good deal of it; and this picture states her loathing. That loathing, somewhat sophomorically simple though it is, gives the picture its integrity. It is utter: nastiness fills the screen from edge to edge.

May has directed as intimately as possible. All through it I felt that she was trying to press me up against the two men in mimesis of the feeling between them (and thus with an implicit comment on what mere closeness is worth). Her editing, about the duration of which there has been much talk, is sometimes ragged. Whiskers disappear, reappear, and disappear again during the same sequence; likewise cigarettes. The picture could have been shorter: the second visit to the "easy" woman serves a merely formal purpose, it doesn't really hold us. (pp. 20-1)

[Mikey and Nicky is] a little furry film that first interests, then amuses, then bites you, then scurries away again, leaving you a bit sickened. But authentically sickened. (p. 21)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Films: 'Mikey and Nicky'" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1977 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 176, Nos. 1 & 2, January 1 & 8, 1977, pp. 20-1.

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