Film Review: The Nice Guys

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling make for a great comedy duo in this dark, cynical noir with an unexpectedly earnest center.
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After a detour in superhero-land with Iron Man 3, writer-director Shane Black returns to a more Kiss Kiss Bang Bang sort of milieu for his third directorial effort, The Nice Guys, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as a detective duo bumbling their way through 1970s Los Angeles. Gay Perry would hate them both. But doesn’t Gay Perry hate most everyone?

The meeting between Jackson Healy (Crowe) and Holland March (Gosling) is less than auspicious; Holland, who’s investigating the death of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), gets his arm broken by Jackson, who’s been hired by a person of interest in Misty’s (Ms. Mountains’?) case to rough up that creepy guy who’s been following her around. As in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—and, less recently, classic noirs and ’70s conspiracy thrillers—everything turns out to be connected, if in something of a convoluted fashion. I don’t think there were too many talking bees or strippers dressed like mermaids in any of those previous films, though. (Granted, it has been a while since I’ve seen Chinatown.)

Crowe and Gosling alike display a gift for comedy that’s shown, in Gosling’s case, not often enough (The Big Short a notable recent exception), and in Crowe’s case, almost never. (Unless you count the unintentional comedy of Winter’s Tale.) Jackson and Holland aren’t bad at being private detectives, exactly, but they’re far from possessing the effortless cool of a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe. Holland, in particular, spends a good amount of time emitting high-pitched shrieks as everyone involved in the production of Misty Mountains’ mysterious final film—the obligatory noir MacGuffin—keeps turning up dead around him. The whole thing’s something of an extended riff on the Russian roulette scene in Kiss Kiss, when Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr.) tries to intimidate a henchman, only to accidentally shoot him in the head. Here’s a very cinematic, very noir setup. And here’s what happens when two averages dudes are thrown into it. It ain’t pretty. But it is funny.

Another point of similarity between The Nice Guys and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—not to harp on it, but they are very similar films—is the deft blend of cynicism and sentiment crafted by Black and co-screenwriter Anthony Bagarozzi. Like Harry Lockhart, Holland and Jackson get involved in some really dark stuff—corruption, murder, conspiracy—but in their hidden gooey centers, they’re just well-meaning schmucks trying to connect with other people. Holland wants to be a better father to his 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), the moral center of the film; Jackson, who has no family at all, just wants to be useful to someone. It’s noir with a few genes from Being There spliced in: Sure, The Nice Guys says, the world’s a crazy place. There’s nothing anybody can do to change that. All you can do is suck it up and try your best.

It’s oddly sweet. At least for a movie that revolves around the death of a porn star.

The Nice Guy’s particular brand of optimistic pessimism—life sucks, but what’s so bad about that?—helps temper what could have been a full-on orgy of nihilism. (And speaking of nihilists, The Nice Guys would make a fine double bill with The Big Lebowski, though the latter is a sharper, meaner film.) If it’s a little sick and twisted, eh, so is L.A.

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