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The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
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Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976)
Invigorating the mob genre, somewhat, through the use of Cassavetes-style acting improvisations and a focus on the low end of the genreís food chain, Elaine Mayís Mikey and Nicky finds two of the most inventive American actors of their generation riffing off of each other to provide a relatively thorough series of observations about the difficulties of male friendship. The film opens as Mikey (Peter Falk) receives a plea for help from his long-time friend Nicky (John Cassavetes), who has gone into hiding after having stolen money from some gangsters. After an extended, somewhat unconvincing, paranoid freak-out in a hotel room, the two take to the streets, supposedly attempting to find a way to get Nicky out of Philadelphia and harmís way. As the film progresses, the two wander about, bouncing their suspicions and jealousy off of one another, resulting in a series of talky scenes that show glimpses of the menís souls to those willing to see through their tough-guy posturing. Both of the men have banged-up egos, but their bruises only inspire them to hurt each other more. The threat of betrayal always looms large, which forces each of them to repeatedly question the status of their friendship. There isnít exactly much dramatic tension for the audience in guessing whether or not Mikey will turn Judas on his friend, but itís clearly a tense situation for Nicky. Watching Nicky squirm under pressure while Mikey attempts to keep him under control, the film manages to create a considerable amount of energy.
The style of Mikey and Nicky contains superficial aimlessness that doesnít really mesh perfectly with the movieís clear symbolic and thematic concerns. The looseness of the performances, the technical shoddiness of the filmmaking, and the nocturnal and realistic urban locale mask some of the more obvious script elements, but many seams still show through. A certain falseness exists here, and it rears its head as it becomes apparent that the actors are moving through a bulleted list of mostly faked reactions toward each other in an attempt to make this specific story a more definitive statement about male bonding. As in the Cassavetes-directed The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the most interesting moments observe actors playing characters that are suddenly placed in the position of actors. Falkís superb performance especially feels like an intensely personal meditation on the craft at times, but there are still moments that grate. The most overtly phony scenes belabor a theme about lost childhood innocence, which tries to establish the menís mostly unspoken longing for the time before their relationship deteriorated. Though itís certainly a worthwhile film, Mikey and Nicky is not without major weaknesses. Because of some less satisfying stretches, itís one of those films that feels better in retrospect than while watching it.
* * * 1/2