"Mickey One" is a runaway movie and a wild curiosity.
It's a gorgeous, infuriating American art film from an era when our best moviemakers tried to take the pulse of the nation rather than merely guess the emotional weight of their next-door neighbors.
It's weirdly exhilarating to see it on the same screen at the Charles where "mumblecore" and other minimalist aesthetics sometimes rule. Instead of kitchen-sink comedy-drama, it gives us everything-including-the-kitchen-sink comedy-drama. (It screens Saturday at noon, Monday at 7 p.m. and Thursday at 9 p.m., as part of the Charles' weekly revival series.)
On its wobbly realistic plane, it's a tale of a Detroit nightclub comic hiding out from the Mob in Chicago. But here, the Mob epitomizes unseen forces corrupting and controlling urban men, whether they're as decent and nonthreatening as a self-respecting pizzeria owner or as reckless and improvisatory as a shtick artist like the title character. At its best, "Mickey One" conjures nightmare-alley poetry. At its worst, it goes on the lam from coherence.
This standup comic is no standup guy. Faced with another man's torture or threats to his own life, he looks away or scrams. Mickey One is known only by the Americanized version of an unpronounceable name on a stolen Social Security card. He says, "Onstage, I'm the Polack Noel Coward." But in his inability to figure out exactly what he owes the Mob or how he can pay off his debt, he is an asphalt-jungle Everyman — or at least as much of an Everyman as you can be if you're played by Warren Beatty.
When he made this movie, director Arthur Penn already had a string of stage hits to his credit, including "The Miracle Worker"; he'd also earned an Oscar nomination for directing the screen version of that renowned production.
In "Mickey One," Penn wanted to do something completely different. As he told Time magazine at the time, he hoped "to push American movies into areas in which Fellini and Truffaut have moved." Penn captures the poignancy and urgency beneath seedy or pretentious entertainment — an achievement straight out of Fellini.
And he tries to catch tenderness on the fly during Mickey's rushed yet genuine love affair with a girl named Jenny (Alexandra Stewart), who wants to help the antihero face his demons. If that part of the film worked (it doesn't: no chemistry), it would have been a lyric flight worthy of Truffaut.
Fellini plumbed melancholy from the ruins of postwar Italy and decadence from Roman nightspots. Working in textured black and white with the great cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (who had previously shot masterpieces like Louis Malle's "The Fire Within'), Penn does the same thing in Chicago and Detroit. He whips up a spiked visual brew out of an "adults-only" pop culture that is going to rot and a metropolitan landscape that is barreling into entropy.
In an episode reeking of avant-garde camp, Penn detours into a self-destructing Rube Goldberg art installation. I mean that literally. Mickey One and Jenny witness a kinetic sculpture called "Yes," erected on the ice rink of Chicago's Marina Towers apartments. Even worse, the artist behind "Yes" — credited as, yes, The Artist (Kamatari Fujiwara) — is a mime with a peddler's cart who swerves in and out of the action. He's a conceit created by conceited filmmakers.
But even the film's ultra-outre moments prove to be fascinating. The most modern character is the epicene impresario of the swank club Xanadu, who goes into a startling contemporary riff about the importance of being "organic." Healthy living obviously won't save this compromised soul. (He's played by Hollywood's Dorian Gray, Hurd Hatfield.)
Nor will anything carry Mickey One to a haven. Warren Beatty can't pull off the illusion that he could be a killer comedian. But he does imbue this hunted man with competitive pride and a fine edge of desperation. He's believable when he's humiliating an even worse club comic. And you never doubt that, as a personality, he belongs in the spotlight. Even at the movie's murkiest, in "Mickey One" he's every inch a movie star: a lower-depths supernova.
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