Directed by Shane Black
Written by Shane Black and Anthony Baggarozzi
Starring Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, and Kim Basinger
Runtime 116 minutes
Detective comedies are tricky things. If you go too much for comedy, you risk making a parody of the detective film and if you go too light on it, you make the humor feel out of place in the often dark storytelling that is inherent in a detective story. Fortunately for The Nice Guys, we have Shane Black writing and directing. Black practically invented the buddy cop comedy in the 1980s with the Lethal Weapon franchise and further honed the action comedy with The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight before taking a 9-year leave of absence from Hollywood before making his self-penned directorial debut in 2005 with the underrated neo-noir detective comedy Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which is very much the mold he used to craft The Nice Guys, though without as much of a noir feeling to it.
The story is that of Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a private detective with absolutely no scruples (he takes on a missing persons case for a woman who is worried because her husband has been missing since his funeral and whose ashes sit in an urn on her mantle) who is hired to find a porn actress by the woman’s aunt Mrs. Glenn (Lois Smith). The problem is the girl has been dead two days by the time March takes the case and despite his telling Mrs. Glenn this, he takes the case. It leads him to Amelia (Mararet Qualley), the daughter of Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), the head of the Justice Department (who is also looking for Amelia), who may have been the woman Mrs. Glenn insists she saw at her niece’s house, prompting her investigation. Amelia hires Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a professional bruiser, to ‘persuade’ March to give up looking for her. When Jackson is assaulted by Blueface (Beau Knapp), so called because he opens a bag with a money tracer that explodes in his face during the assault, and Older Guy (Keith David) who are looking for Amelia too, Healy decides to contract/join March in locating the girl and getting to the bottom of why people seem to be trying to kill her. March agrees and the pair, joined by March’s persistent 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), track down the truth behind a rash of murders that are all joined by a porn (“art”) film, with Amelia the missing piece.
The screenplay, co-written by Black and first-time screenwriter Anthony Baggarozzi, owes a debt to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye in that it weaves a complex tale of murder, political activism, paranoia, big business and conspiracy all while keeping an amazingly light tone and fantastic sense of humor. March is a borderline alcoholic who seems to be a bumbling halfwit but is really quite a good detective when he applies himself (or when Holly makes him apply himself) and Healy is a guy who wants to help people but feels he isn’t quite the type, so he tries to do bad things for good people. The way the characters are written give them depth and emotional qualities that would have been ignored if they were just going for a punchline. Both are real people with real pain and real joy, fully realized characters who are unwittingly thrust into a situation that is clearly over both of their heads, yet they persist be it out of a sense of duty (Healy) or for the money (March), with the ever-present moral compass of Holly (who routinely places herself in danger while trying to help her father). The fourth main character is the 1970s themselves. The period is so much a part of this film that while these characters and the scenario could be contemporary (with some tweaking), the mood and feeling of the film is entirely indicative of the late ‘70s. We aren’t in the optimistic late-hippie, end of Vietnam ‘70s here, we’re in the post-Watergate/Nixon resignation, gas-rationing, Jaws 2 and Airport ’77 ‘70s, full of cynicism, doubt and a total lack of confidence for the future. This feeling pervades the film and informs the actions and decisions of all the characters to pitch-perfection. Black and Baggarozi fill the film with twists and turns, like a good detective story should have, never letting the audience guess what the outcome is going to be while giving up the truth of the situation flat out, but making it seem far-fetched. The only trouble with the script comes at the end of the 2nd act, where things seem hopeless for the main characters and the life drains out of the film, only to be kick-started again, leading to the climatic 3rd act. This seems to be the favored style of Black, a way of trying to give more punch to the finale by making things seem like there can be no happy ending, the trouble is that it robs the film (like many of his others) of the built-up momentum and forces it to try and regain what it has lost instead of continuing on. This loses time and to a point, the audience.
As a director, Black seems to like to step back and let his script do most of the work. That’s not to say he comes across as an absent director, though. He does try to do some clever things visually, but largely he doesn’t insert himself, which during the prolonged gun fights is unfortunate as they seem a little shopworn. His real strength as a director is his clever and sometimes unexpected blocking and his gift for visual gags (such as March continually falling off high places).
As much credit as Black deserves for his script and direction, it’s Gosling, Crowe and Rice who keep things engaging. Gosling’s recent turn to comedies is refreshing because he is so gifted in the genre. Having established himself as a serious and often glowering presence (as in Drive), to see him play a total goof is fantastic. He inhabits the role perfectly, giving over to believing drunken dreams are reality and displaying a real penchant for prat falls. Crowe, similarly glum and serious, is phenomenal in this lighter role. While he’s largely the straight-man to Gosling’s shenanigans, he plays his role very lightly but is also more than convincing when his character has some very dark moments. Only an actor of Crowe’s range can make a man who beats people up for a living and will murder in cold blood a likable and even jovial person. Rice is the real revelation here, because she is able to keep pace and even outshine these two heavyweights. Her charm and tenacity as Holly are expertly played as well as her wiser-than-her-age attitude. She takes a character that could have ended up being the weak point of the film and undermining it completely and makes her a strong, smart and vital piece of the story that without whom, the film may not have been nearly as entertaining.
The Nice Guys certainly entertains all the way through, even giving some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. It continues the recent trend of ‘70s period pieces that pays homage to the decade as much as it mocks it. With a strong script and direction and some welcome, unexpected performances, The Nice Guys is a smart and funny film that will hopefully be remembered come awards season.