Russell and Ryan, a match made in dark comedy heaven.
The Nice Guys isn’t the first time that director Shane Black has dabbled in the Los Angeles neo-noir comedy genre, and not the first time his LA neo-noir comedy has featured the pairing of an odd couple solving a crime. 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a highly under-appreciated noir caper with hysterical performances from Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. Truth be told, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a smarter, funnier, and all around better movie than The Nice Guys, but the latter is very entertaining and deserves a lot of credit. Despite a quasi-tonal mess that it actually ends up embracing, the film’s laid back trivial attitude and hilarious performances from its two leads make The Nice Guys a satisfying early summer romp.
The Nice Guys takes place in 1977 Los Angeles, which you’ll be reminded of over and over and over again through the wardrobes, settings, cars, music, and 70s era dialogue. Shane Black and his crew do a remarkable job with the period setting, but at a certain point you begin to wonder if the characters will ever visit a set that isn’t overwhelmingly a product of the 70s. Okay, so, 70s private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is on a case to locate a girl, a girl who is also the subject of a parallel case given to sensitive strong-arm Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe). The two cross paths and slowly but surely, and with casual idiocy, realize that there’s a much bigger case afoot. The supporting cast is full of splendid actors that fill their roles with color and enthusiasm, from hired goons to porn industry members to March’s teenage girl, Holly (Angourie Rice). Holly is a precocious child living with her buffoonish drunk father Holland, and of course her antics take her closer and closer and, ultimately, directly into the detectives dangerous work. Sometimes it feels forced and the script doesn’t quite know when to play her involvement for laughs or for added suspense where there is none. When the film employs her for laughs, it works very well. For suspense, not so much.
The sharp script and well-directed action wouldn’t be as entertaining without the welcome humility and chemistry of its two leads, Gosling and Crowe. Toning his usual dramatic flairs down for some low key comedy, Crowe excels here with a knack for good timing and patience with his delivery (credit, of course, to the script co-written by Black). Crowe maintains his usual demanding physical presence, but plays up his vulnerable moments well. Handling most of the comic relief is Gosling, whose quasi-shoddy/quasi-brilliant detective work and imbecilic actions are hilarious, especially in contrast to his charming relationship with his daughter and blind luck avoiding serious injury. In the action-filled finale, Gosling hysterically pinballs through the fight scene with the grace and fluidity of Buster Keaton.
That all being said, The Nice Guys works best because it embraces a laid back attitude in the face of dark neo-noir plot turns and adult scenarios, both violent and sexual. By not latching on to the overly dramatic or overly ridiculous points in the story, The Nice Guys rides a wave of triviality to humorous ends. Healey and March bumble their way through the case’s mysteries and loose ends, remaining remarkably resolute most of the time and casually reacting to extreme violence or sexuality, or reacting with scared restraint. It’s hilarious to watch the two freeze up in the face of violent escalations. Despite the R rating for a whole lot of nudity, swearing, and violence, the film is somehow a pleasant breeze to sit through— it’s always entertaining, most of the time funny, and rewarding. It’s nice, guys. So, check it out.
The Nice Guys opens in theaters May 20, 2016.