Mikey and Nicky (1976) by Elaine May
Review by Zach Dennis
Who would be your call if you were being hunted down?
A loved one is probably out. You don’t want to rope them into the same situation; they need a least a chance to escape unscathed. A family member might work, but that could also be a loaded situation.
They say friends are the family you get to choose, but in some cases they might just be another group you’re saddled with. The unique perspective they bring – dependant on how long they’ve known you – is the ability to have grown up around you. While a family member might see you from birth to old age, they see you as one of their own. Seeing a friend grow is different – this stranger grows, changes and shifts in front of you, and, depending on the path, can almost become foreign.
They know you unfiltered. That’s why Nicky called Mikey.
It’s late and Nicky (John Cassavetes) is holed up in his hotel room and paranoid. He’s stolen money from Dave Resnick, a mob boss he works for, and Resnick has already killed one of the other men involved. Nicky knows he’s next so he calls Mikey (Peter Falk) and tells him he’s in trouble. Moments later, Mikey is in front of the hotel looking for his friend.
Only speaking from the perspective of male friendships, they’re tricky. Men seem automatically aloof, programmed to instantly switch into that performative gear. What does cool mean? What does genuine mean? The definition doesn’t matter, we just hit our default like a mechanism. But that comes with age, and with those you knew in youth, it becomes even more complicated.
Long-time friendships are tricky. It is certainly not the case for everyone, but they don’t predominantly turn out like the characters of Friends – all meeting at the same coffee shop, intersecting and connected in life. For the most part, we drift; not always far away, but enough that distance and a lack of insight into their lives is created.
It’s doubtful anyone plans this. Life comes in and presents you with new opportunities – jobs, emergencies, marriages, kids – and the next thing you know, you haven’t spoken in awhile. But what is weirder is that bond is still there; you may be in the body of a 40-year-old but the motions of your younger selves immediately leap out.
Once Mikey is able to coerce Nicky out of the hotel room, he darts down the hallway and to the elevator. Despite Mikey’s suggestion to use the lift, Nicky rushes down the stairs with Mikey on his tail. He stops at the door with a request: switch coats. His thinking is that his pursuers will get confused and allow him to escape, and Mikey can wear his coat because he believes that no one is out there.
Mikey complies and has to accept even more (if not with a slight grumble) when Nicky also asks for his watch, which he trades for the gun the paranoid has been waving around. As planned, Mikey makes his way into the lobby, only to be passed by a bolting Nicky who Mikey proceeds to chase out the door, into the street and near his car.
The two men laugh and poke at one another as if they were kids escaping a store they just snagged a candy bar from.
It’s easy to fall back into old times and it usually has to be that way when enough time between visits has passed.
You don’t know where to begin.
Most of the time you pull out your rolodex of memories and raffle through them: that one time at the restaurant, when you did that thing in history class or the one about the guy in Spanish. It’s difficult to assess whether these moments are genuine or just pleasantries – like if you asked the person on the bus about the book they’re reading. It might be in the context of the relationship, but it also releases that anxiety.
This is a person you’re more than acquainted with, but it has been a few months and you talk or text here and there, but their life is happening and your life is happening and the time passes too quickly to stay on top of every bit of information as you may want to. Next thing you know, you’re a few steps behind.
Maybe this is speaking out of personal experience, but you usually look at them (and in this case, most often another man) and want to catch them up to the level you’re at now. At the same time, those opening moments of memories and the years of build-up prior tempt you to stay in that time – unsullied, nostalgia or the “good ole days.” Why would you want to bring up the job you lost or the break-up that ravaged your mental health or the debt that keeps climbing or the thoughts of suicide that creep in as you lie awake at night.
This person would probably help you with those. Or at least listen, you would assume. Remember, this is the person you’re calling to get you out of the bind. It might not solve the issue but he may say “ah, you’ll get another one” or “she wasn’t that great, you remember” or something that isn’t an answer but soothes you in the situation.
But you don’t bring it up and you leave it still and it breaks you a bit. It isn’t why can’t we go back to the old days but why can’t we connect with who we are today like we did back then?
Growing fidgety and watching Mikey stare down the clock for 45 minutes at the bar, Nicky bolts out the door and down the street. He wants to see a girl then go see a movie; maybe work some ice cream into the equation. Mikey agrees but needs to make a phone call. Despite his lunatic paranoia, Nicky is right that someone is following him; Kinney (Ned Beatty) pulls up to the bar minutes after they leave. On the phone, Mikey leaves where they’re going with his wife in case Kinney calls for instructions. Mikey works for Resnick also and his relationship to Nicky means he has been tasked with delivering the cargo to the killer.
A volatile bus ride later, they get off early and make their way to the cemetery. Nicky wants to see his mother who was buried there and the two go searching for her grave. They become kids again; Nicky jovial and never serious while Mikey is solemn and trying his best to respect the area. They find the grave and Mikey gets angry at his friend for his jokes while he “speaks with ma” before Nicky brings up Mikey’s younger brother Iggy, who passed away. The name stings Mikey because he hasn’t spoken about him in a long time – maybe not even to his family – and he’s surprised that Nicky even knew him; “course I did.”
Juveniles again, they slap and babble out of the cemetery and make their way to the movie house.
There isn’t much profound about the men of Elaine May movies – they’re all dullards. For the most part though, she has empathy for their sadness. It can be up to interpretation whether or not they’re reformed by the end but there is something about their bitterness that makes her offer some pity.
Nicky is no different. Probably the most dullard of the lot, outside of scamming the mob boss he and Mikey are working for, he also sleeps around, abuses those women and his wife and uses his best, and only friend, as a lifeline rather than a companion.
So the two men detour from the movie as Nicky wants to go see a girl. Nellie (Carol Grace) is up and dancing with him while Mikey speaks with his wife over the phone, who is worried about their son who won’t go back to sleep. Once he’s done, he’s forced to escape to the kitchen as Nicky begins to down the lights and tell Nellie that he loves her in order to get her to sleep with him. As they lie on the floor, and Mikey smokes in the kitchen, the two stop and Nicky leaves the room for Mikey who tries to make a movie on Nellie at Nicky’s recommendation. She immediately is defensive and bites his lip (and is returned with a slap to the face) after he kisses her.
Inflamed by the fact that he and Nellie were embarrassed and he was placed in the situation, a fight between the two men breaks out in the street. Nicky smashes Mikey’s watch – the only gift from his deceased father – on the ground and ends their odyssey together, but not entirely.
The scene could be the most tragic moment of the movie as Mikey breaks down the pain and solitude this friendship has become. He’s hurt. He knows he talks down about him while he isn’t around and doesn’t answer the phone unless he needs something. How could someone who is supposed to be so close and so reliable trash something so meaningful?
It might be why you keep quiet as you look that old friend across the table. You could enter the present and ask why contact isn’t as regular or why you seem excluded from events now. There might be an apology and a reassurance that it won’t happen again, but that doesn’t close the wound because you know if you went back to the good old days, you would’ve been the first call and there wouldn’t have even been that mistake. So what are you supposed to do other than accept that you aren’t as high a priority anymore?
As Mikey and Nicky separate, Mikey finds his way to Kinney but they aren’t able to find the roving Nicky who skips from alley to alley before visiting his estranged wife, Jane, and forcing his way in to make some sort of reconciliatory plea. Afterwards he makes a stop at a store to grab some candy and comics while Mikey and Kinney inform Resnick that they couldn’t find him. They’re sent home with Kinney watching Mikey’s place to see if Nicky comes by.
At home, Mikey is trying to wrap his brain around the night and asks his wife if he ever told her about his brother’s death. She didn’t think so.
Like clockwork, Nicky comes to the door and Mikey and his wife have to hold him there until Kinney comes around the corner to finish the mania. In one evening, Mikey lost two of his most treasured items – the watch his father left for him and the only connection he had to his past. The only person who knew him as a kid.
It’s unfortunate that these conversations can’t always become non-stagnant. I mean, we could force some chatter in there but who knows if it will really bridge that gap once again.
Unfortunately, life places us in acts and the various players in each act don’t overlap as much as we would like to think.
It hurts for men because that emotional connection with other men doesn’t always come smoothly. Mikey clearly cares deeply and trusts his wife but as he sits behind his barricaded door and hears the car drive away, he knows that he lost a connection that he won’t be able to ever bring back or repair. That this connection was something genuine and true even if it wasn’t perfect and it seemed forgotten most of the time.
Now he has no one for his own call.