In the late '50s and early '60s, Mike Nichols and Elaine May blazed across the comedy circuit, and in the decades after they split up, Nichols went on to be the toast of Broadway and a major Hollywood player, while May became best known for directing the 1987 mega-bomb Ishtar. At one time, though, May's post-sketch-comedy career was as promising as her partner's. While Nichols excelled at single-minded precision, May was the disruptor, jumping from character to character, and up until she started directing her own movies, May was in demand as a stage and screen comedienne.
She started to go off the rails while writing and directing 1976's Mikey & Nicky, a low-budget, offbeat underworld comedy that let her explore her love of improvisation with two champions of the form, John Cassavetes and Peter Falk. Cassavetes plays a paranoid mobster trying to stay one step ahead of a vengeful boss with the help of his childhood friend Falk, another small-time hood. For most of the movie, the duo ducks from one nightspot to the next, talking about bad marriages, kids, stomach pain, and unresolved issues from their shared past. May puts off the mob action for as long as possible, preferring to watch the men wrestle with busted TV aerials and harass persnickety bus drivers. In the movie's most dramatic extended scene, Cassavetes visits his mistress, forcing Falk to sit on a trashcan in the kitchen while Cassavetes has sex in the adjoining room.
Mikey & Nicky is sometimes dull and sometimes confusing—and it's both at once in the first 10 minutes, when Cassavetes is semi-comatose in a hotel room—but it also features plenty of absurd-but-believable human behavior, like when Falk's wife needs to write down a message and asks her son to "bring me a crayon… a Crayola." On the Mikey & Nicky DVD, producer Michael Hausman and cinematographer Victor Kemper describe May's disordered set and how her drive to make a Cassavetes-like human comedy led her to make a near-parody, full of clumsy framing, low light, mismatched editing, and muffled natural sound. After going insanely over-schedule on the shoot, May reportedly spent more than a year in the editing room, trying to cut her wild mix of subtle humor and stark truth into watchable shape.
For the most part, she succeeded, though Mikey & Nicky's reputation as one of the great forgotten films of the '70s is slightly exaggerated. Once Cassavetes and Falk part company about two-thirds of the way through, the story loses focus before rallying for a tense conclusion. But the middle hour is honestly brilliant, as levelheaded grunt Falk swings between admiring Cassavetes' success and looking for a chance to lay into him for all the indignities Falk has suffered at his hands. It's a pungent dual character study, written and directed by a woman who clearly knows what it's like to work closely with someone, nurture him, and then watch him slip by.