You know what they say: when a porn star crashes her car through a house, you know you’re about to have a good time at the movies. Ok, well, nobody says that, but they ought to now. Such is the opening of The Nice Guys, a raucous riot of 70s action that starts insane and thankfully stays that way.
The movie is written and directed by Shane Black, who has cemented himself as the liveliest auteur of the “buddy genre”. A successful screenwriter before he added directing to his cinema repertoire, Black practically reinvented the buddy cop genre with his screenplay for the 1987 classic Lethal Weapon. Years later in 2005, he reinvigorated his (and Robert Downey Jr.’s) career with the excellent buddy crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He honed his directorial skills by helming Iron Man 3 — which, in retrospect, awkwardly proved that the superhero genre isn’t befitting of his suave style — and now he’s back with The Nice Guys, a buddy crime comedy in the same vein of his directorial debut.
This latest effort strikes a great balance between sophistication and satire, creating one of the most purely entertaining movies of the year so far. The Nice Guys is a buddy crime comedy that’s light on the buddy and crime aspects, so that it can be hilariously heavy on the comedy.
After the off-kilter opening, Black’s screenplay wastes no time in introducing the two main characters. Russell Crowe plays contract enforcer Jackson Healy: he beats people up for money. A young girl named Amelia requests his services, for she believes she’s being followed — and she is, by Ryan Gosling’s bumbling private investigator Holland March. Crowe and Gosling inevitably cross paths, but are forced to forge an unlikely partnership (surprise!) when Amelia later goes missing. Cue two buddies solving a mystery in 1970s Los Angeles.
Let’s focus on that last part first: as with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the Los Angeles setting is as vibrantly portrayed as ever, but the 70s facet adds on a shiny neon layer. The set design and costume design are immaculate: The Nice Guys practically suspends your disbelief for you. Combine that with fanciful photography direction from the cinematographer behind Big Fish, and this is one smooth looking movie.
The real stars of the show are clearly Crowe and Gosling though. Both are endlessly funny characters for completely different reasons, and their comedic styles complement one another enjoyably. Crowe very much plays the straight man, an unnerved thug whose stoic demeanor glares delightfully in contrast to the mad world around him. And Gosling? He’s a personification of that mad world. Whether the private investigator is half-drunk, failing miserably at his job, or both; Gosling’s physical humor is straight up hysterical. Seeing the often-sexualized Ryan Gosling so amusingly emasculated is funny in and of itself, but the actor delivers such a layered and full-bodied performance that he ratchets the laughs up significantly.
As for the chemistry between the two, it never fully clicks. Both actors do a fine job seemingly independent of one another. I’d never go so far as to believe that they were “buddies”, even by the end of the movie.
Shane Black’s writing further relishes in the movie’s comedic core by tossing in doses of well-measured randomness. His screenplays have always been particularly non sequitur, but his newfound mastery of the style lies on the visual side this time around. It’s not uncommon to find random and jokey dialogue in movies, but Black makes setting up
visual punch lines an art. He constantly focuses on framing the more absurd details of the story — especially the hyperviolence, which the movie indulges in with satirical indifference.
The narrative is fairly standard. The mystery isn’t that interesting, seeing as the audience can only discover clues and twists right when the characters do. There are no pieces to organically put together and even the life and death situations feel low stakes, which can suck some weight out of the film. This feels intentional though; as it seems Black’s biggest focus was the rambunctious slapstick — and that works wonders.
Oh, and Angourie Rice steals every scene she’s in as Holland’s daughter. But you’ll know that within thirty minutes, and you’ll already be having a blast.