As a writer, Elaine May was involved with well known, accessible movies like Heaven Can Wait, Tootsie, Reds, and Primary Colors. But as a writer-director, she was different, making strange films that steered clear of convention and often played around with improvisation-one can definitely see how she had an influence on the mumblecore movement. The only really familiar thing about her films was that there were movie stars in them: A New Leaf had Walter Matthau, and Ishtar Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty. But the best cast she had was in Mikey and Nicky, which features John Cassavetes and Peter Faulk in the leads, and Ned Beatty in a great supporting role.
The funny irony of the movie is that Nicky (Cassavetes) saves the night when he's being pursued by the mob to solve his life's problems. It starts out as a fairly typical thriller: Nicky is in his hotel room and he calls his friend Mikey (Faulk) to come help him. Mikey isn't convinced Nicky's life is in danger, but he's a good pal and ready to help all the same. They proceed with an escape plan, and yet it doesn't take long for May to let us know that this movie probably won't have any action, and certainly won't be a thriller. Mikey and Nicky are soon shown to be a bantering duo, quite opposite in temperament yet bound by camaraderie and crime-world honor. Much of the movie ends up being about how long these virtues can hold up when people are selfish. As they prepare to leave the hotel and Nicky insists that they exchange coats, there's almost a feeling that we're watching an updated version of an Abbott and Costello skit (it's also worth nothing that May found fame in the 1950s for her comedy routines with director Mike Nichols).
And that's one of the central pleasures of the movie. Cassavetes was a very good actor, and Faulk was a great one, and together they've got the rock-solid chemistry vital for a picture as talky as this one. It's pretty clear early on that Nicky is more concerned with solving his life than escaping from it. The fact that he's being pursued for a hit serves almost as a metaphor for mid-life crisis. It also gives May an incentive for Nicky to go out to bars, visit his mother's grave, and try to make amends with his girlfriend and wife. He probably wouldn't do this on an ordinary night, but because his life is on the line, May is sort of justified in this busyness and melodrama. And ultimately, this big night of drinking and reflection and problem-solving (and creating) serves as a platform for Mikey and Nicky to consider the nature of their own friendship.
The way the movie ambles unpredictably and often slowly, and allows more space for talk than plot recalls Cassavetes' own movies (this one's a little like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which was actually released the same year as this). But where Cassavetes' work stood out for being mysteriously paced while never actually straying away from the driving narrative, May's film is a structural mess. Not only does it not respect tradition, but it doesn't even seem to care about it. The film's self-importance ultimately detracts from its virtues.
Still, one must admire the film some for its stubborn ways as well as the fact that it is pretty intelligent, and because the performances are so good, rather moving, too.