Elaine May’s career-ending 1987 blockbuster social tract Ishtar, a lopsided work of equal parts monomaniacal egomania and bracingly scabrous anti-masculine comic commentary, has spent the better part of a decade being partially rescued by youthful, revisionist film critics. Now, that film’s partial reappraisal is arguably unearned; its phenomenally sardonic first half is mostly undone by an untethered, obsessively messy back portion that sees May woefully incapable of handling the ridiculously inflated budget of the production. It feels like wishful thinking to lump it in with the equally voluminous anti-American critique of Western iconography that is Michael Cimino’s much more deserving masterpiece Heaven’s Gate. But if reappraising Ishtar is a necessary casualty to resurrecting Elaine May’s bracing back-catalogue, then so be it. She remains responsible for a number of the lost masterpieces of American cinema, a cadre of the best films released in arguably the most impressive decade for the nation’s cinema.
None more-so masterful than 1976’s Mikey and Nicky, an anomaly in May’s career that scrubs away most of the brutishly gallows comedic edge of her previous films, reorienting her trademark expression of the male ego in unhindered descent into near-horror film status. Grimier than any Scorsese grotto and more perturbed and paranoid than a dozen Coppola panic attacks, Mikey and Nicky is a full-throated, two-fisted chamber piece, a pas de deux of two men without a clue rustling and hurtling in any all directions they can find. May rejects grand stylistic gestures; the Byzantine flourishes of The Godfather and the accompanying gaudy, operatic Americana are far-flung visions of filmic fiction in this desperate New York of back-alleys and rooms where the sun doesn’t shine. You can practically hear the paint chipping off the walls. And the mind of the American male.
A mind that isn’t embodied in either of the film’s central characters so much as it is free-floating throughout the dingy, disreputable spaces the two men vacantly, tenuously establish tenancy in. This is a gutter-strewn, alley-cat world diametrically opposed to the romantic facade of The Godfather and even more disturbed than the baroque Goodfellas and Scorsese’s other sometimes symbolic pictures of male life. Nicky (John Cassavetes) spends the whole film skulking from a hole in the wall to another, and his only friend Mikey (Peter Falk) – the only man willing to help him – is secretly stalking Mikey, watching over him while feeding information to his would-be assailant. Both characters, however, remain cadavers of a sorts, hollow beings whose lives are inscribed not in pseudo-psychoanalytic hints but apocalyptic tantrums of external shapes and balances and shifts between the pulsing anxiety of Cassavetes and the rough-hewn, hunched-over nonchalance of Peter Falk.
May, writing and directing, rejects the chief individualist dogma of American film – that of charting out the internal realms of singular people – for a more impressionist series of strokes that eschew totalizing views of the characters. Instead, we divine details from the world around the characters as we parsimoniously balance with the film, as opposed to being handed certain symbols of tentative “truth” that explain the attitudes of these two men. We watch them talk, engaging in their particularly masculine brand of brazen chaos as they bid for power between each other, but they remain masks who we can only guess about, rather than know fully. May is too cautious and careful, and too humble, a filmmaker to assume she can map the minds of anyone, so she proposes a more honest path in circumventing outdated psychoanalysis as she instead peruses simmering external bruises and punches thrown by a camera daring to inhabit this nightmarishly irritable picture where tempo and tone can shift at a moment’s notice from easy camaraderie to festering fracas to intimate explosion of anger.
At the heart of the film is a nervousness that, much like the films of star (and May’s friend) Cassavetes, distills the weight of decades of unease and blowback. Their actions and conversations are naturalistic but loaded with unstated arguments and grabs for supremacy, yet each scene feels totally free from the static nature of prescribed meaning. The dialogue is less a parade of focused debates than a series of circumstantial back and forths where a moment can ruin years of coagulation between the friends. Improvisational in the spirit of Cassavetes’ best films, the two actors (best friends in real life) unload their tempers onto each other with sinewy, snakelike sidewinding rage. They aren’t shouting matches though; the sharpest of emotions are always tempered, revealed not in haughty throwdowns by implosions rendered like ulcers and sweaty brows. Even the symbiotic complements are deceptively parasitic: to console Nicky at one point, Mikey informs him that no one would want to kill him because he’s “not worth it”.
Running with that strain of alternately empathetic and invasive pity, May’s central thesis is to avoid locating the heart of the two men as she aims for the sides or the guts with jabs that reveal only portions of the whole. The two men seem always fluctuating, yet never complete; a cemetery dirge sees Nicky play a tempest as he rushes to his mother’s grave in respect and then breaks out in corrosive laughter upon arrival, while Mikey switches from seeming disinterest in the trip to paying his gravest Jewish prayer even though he struggles to remember the words. Male friendship is a molotov-cocktail contest, with each of the two fires vacillating between flaring firework and dim match as they repeat arguments like echoes of unwell minds.
Contrasts and graphic matches abound, like a venomous chop-socky cacophony on a theater screen juxtaposed against a more light-hearted martial arts throwdown between the two men as they play hand-slap like two children. Each scene repositions the former, with moments always fighting against each other and reminding that no one view of the two men and their world is complete, a temporal quality most telling in May’s calming interludes with the women who the men woo and erupt upon. We view the characters as, and through, tatters and shards. At the film’s most abusive – and it earns the abuse – May even dares to propose that the two men, always shunned to the shadows, really aren’t worth watching at all. That’s blood-soaked cinema, and Mikey and Nicky may be the most (existentially, not physically) blood-soaked, not to mention the best, gangster film in a decade replete with masterpieces of the genre.