By: Daniel Reynolds
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Ryan Gosling got his start in the comedic foreground. If you were a teenager in the late 90s in Canada, there’s a good chance you saw him as Sean Hanlon in Breaker High, that inexplicable teen show about students on a boat. He wasn’t the strong silent type, or the cool jock — no, Gosling was the needling friend, the schemer, the joke. Now, after The Notebook and his Oscar nomination and forays into music and auteurism, Gosling is generally thought of differently. What writer/director Shane Black suggests with Gosling in his new film The Nice Guys is: go back and think again. There are far worse conceits on which to hang a movie.
As the opening funk music makes abundantly clear, The Nice Guys is set in the 1970s. Some text pinpoints the exact date and location — 1977, Los Angeles — and immediately the late-era neo-noir tropes of the period are called to mind. Forget something like Chinatown, which was only made in the 70s, and recall instead the look and feel of Robert Altman’s shaggy The Long Goodbye, or the more menacing Night Moves. These are the films in which we can expect a dangerous girl or two, some shady business dealings (with drugs, pornography and the like), and violence directed at many of the principles — up to and including the hero. In the case of The Nice Guys, we get something of a change-up right from the jump: instead of one lonesome gumshoe navigating the warrens of L.A., we get two. This is not just a noir film after all; The Nice Guys is also a buddy comedy.
Our first hero is Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe in peak bear mode), a bruiser and collections man for hire. Healy lives alone above a comedy club (how very L.A.) and prowls the city in a muscle car. When someone needs to send a violent message, he’s your man. Healy’s introduction to the story comes when a young girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) pays him to encourage the men who are following her to stop. This leads him to Gosling’s Holland March, a private eye, who just happens to have been hired by an old lady to track down her suspiciously dead porn actress niece. He’s one of the guys after Amelia. March is also a drunk and a bit of a mope. After a funny (and violent) meet cute, the pair form the typical buddy comedy duo: they’re not sure they like each other, but as it turns out, they need each other. For his part, Healy is good at what he does, but wishes it wasn’t the only thing he was good at; meanwhile March, who is only sporadically competent, needs a reason to even try. Like most noir stories, the particulars of The Nice Guys’ plot — who’s after who, who’s getting paid, who killed which guy — are secondary to the journey these less-than-perfect heroes find themselves on.
The film derives much of its motivating power however from a third and unlikely source: March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who takes us one step further outside both typical noir tropes and buddy comedy dimensions. She’s the problem solver of the film and also its conscience, willing both her father and his new friend Healy to be better. In a way, Holly is emblematic of what Black, who directs and co-wrote (along with Anthony Bagarozzi), is trying to achieve with The Nice Guys. He’s marshalled all of the usual suspects for his story, but each is slightly askew. We get a typical labyrinth plot, but the weird and welcome twists along the way — which involve clueless protesters, art filmmaking, a confused granny, Detroit automakers and finds roles for Keith David and Kim Basinger among others — are allowed to foster unlikely intrigue and comedy in equal measure. Likewise Holly is both an innocent girl in peril, and at times the only one clear-eyed enough to suggest the right way forward.
That said, The Nice Guys doesn’t dig particularly deep into its character’s psyches or its own narrative setup for its central mystery. The freshness of the presentation doesn’t entirely excuse this, but the film is entertaining enough to make it not matter. Its plot conveniences would be a lazy step or two away from contrivance in a different film, but here the casual zip of it works. That’s thanks to Black, surely, but also Gosling’s (and to a slightly lesser extent, Crowe’s) performance. In the film’s estimation, March is an oddly effective bumbler, someone who is trying to project a certain cool in the face of danger. He’s a decent enough detective, even if he can’t stand the sight of blood (and is generally useless in a fight). Gosling relays all of this with superb timing, some great physical comedy, and that old needling presence. It was nice to be reminded that Gosling still has a bit of the Breaker High Sean loser charm still in him. As we’ve watched him stare off into the middle distance on and off for the last few years, it was easy to forget he ever had it. Whenever The Nice Guys veers too close to slackness, it’s Gosling who jolts it back on track.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Black’s been at this for awhile, too. He got his start in the buddy comedy genre way back in 1987, writing Lethal Weapon. Since then, like his heroes here, he’s been drifting in and out of the periphery of Hollywood. Black found his way back onto the big stage after writing and directing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and wisely hitching his wagon to Robert Downey Jr., who was in the midst of his own powerful comeback. In the intervening ten years since then, Black has directed Downey in Iron Man 3, finally gotten The Nice Guys off the ground, and appears set to make both Doc Savage and a new Predator film (he acted in the first one). A film like The Nice Guys highlights everything special about a Black film. Its dialogue bounces along, cutting sharply when it needs to, its action is at turns violent and silly, and its heart eventually finds itself in the right place. (There’s also, of course, a scene set during Christmas, a standard Black-ism.) The Nice Guys won’t make you forget all those classic noir films, it won’t even push something wacky like The Big Lebowski from your mind. But like its heroes, it keeps its promise, rewards your time and money, and gets the job done, nicely.