Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

Shane Black’s The Nice Guys reminds us of what Hollywood comedies can look like if they’re movies first, joke-machines second. Instead of the structural laziness of most comedies by Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, and Judd Apatow, Black makes films that work as conventional Hollywood narratives. They would interest you even if all the humour and meta-commentary were removed. Luckily, his films are also hilarious in addition to being narratively compelling. He takes the vulgarity and ugliness of 1970s New Hollywood and transposes it onto the tightly-wound structure of the 1980s action blockbuster. With The Nice Guys, he manages an amusing neo-noir about porn and the Detroit auto industry that’s particularly memorable for its comedic showcasing of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe.

Riffing on the dynamics pioneered by his past buddy cop films (he wrote Lethal Weapon), The Nice Guys follows Gosling’s private detective, Holland March, and Russell Crowe’s enforcer, Jackson Healy, as they work to track down a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who’s on the run after making a porno film with an anti-capitalist message. As March and Healy tail Amelia across Los Angeles circa 1977, they discover a slew of dead bodies left in her wake, and a sinister conspiracy involving the Detroit auto industry and the Justice Department.

The Nice Guys is a satisfying return to what Black does best after his unappealing detour into the world of superheroes with Iron Man 3. Black’s strongest attributes as a writer and director are on full-display here: the tension between his distinctly drawn characters, the crackle of the dialogue, and the rhythmic balance between action and humour. The shot composition and editing might be conventional, but the formal filmmaking is more a delivery vehicle for the dialogue and characters than the focus in its own right.

As the narrative bounces about various cesspools of Seventies’ Los Angeles and the conspiracy grows ever more convoluted, you might start thinking that Black is creating his own paranoiac neo-noir statement akin to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. But Black’s filmmaking isn’t interested in nihilistic thematics or the milieu of Seventies-era hopelessness. The Nice Guys touches on nihilism in its focus on corporate malfeasance, or the cavalier, even callous, way it handles death. But the importance of the plot isn’t to signal the meaninglessness of life in Seventies America, but to bring together the two broken men at the centre: Holland and Jackson.

As the central lunkheads, Gosling and Crowe amplify the screenplay’s charm. They’re a conventional buddy duo: superficial opposites, physically and philosophically, who constantly bicker but eventually realize they complete each other’s deficiencies. The characters as written don’t offer anything new, but the buddy formula isn’t broken and Black has no intention to change what works. Instead, these characters offer these two performers a chance to broaden their talents and try on a new acting suit. The suits fit Gosling and Crowe nicely.

The ostensible straight man, Crowe plays Jackson as a hulking thug who could easily be a psychopath if he weren’t such a moralist. His twisted idea of what constitutes a meaningful day is his recollection of pulverizing a robber’s face with a shotgun during an ill-fated diner stickup. Gosling, for his part, is a louse who has no intention of living up to even the basest decorum of his profession. Perpetually drunk and melancholy about the death of his wife—Holland March is so pitiful, you’re amazed Hollywood would ever produce a mainstream film starring a character of his sort. But the casting of Gosling goes a long way to making the character appealing despite his many deficiencies. Holland’s resourceful daughter, Holly, played by Angourie Rice, is the film’s great discovery, and her constant disapproval of his unscrupulous methods is one of the film’s best running gags. Gosling relishes the physical humour required of Holland, pratfalling like Peter Sellers during the film’s many moments of slapstick. By the third time Gosling falls out a window in the film’s 116 minutes, you feel like you’ve discovered a new great comic talent even if Gosling has been around for a decade.

The Nice Guys works so well because Crowe and Gosling are hilarious together, and Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi offer them plenty of comedic ammunition. If the film’s themes don’t add up to much in the end, that’s a small failure for a film that reminds viewers what adult humour ought to look like in the cinema.

7 out of 10

The Nice Guys (2016, USA)

Directed by Shane Black; written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi; starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Kim Basinger.