Movie Review: The Nice Guys

Crime comedy with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling has something to offend everyone

The Nice Guys
Directed by Shane Black
With Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Kim Basinger

Los Angeles always had a dark underbelly, the flip side of all the glamour. The neo-noir film The Nice Guys gleefully plunges the audience into the world of cheap private detectives, conspiracies, lurid Hollywood parties and pornographic film making. There is a trail of murder starting with a spectacularly fatal car crash involving a nude porn star who speaks several cryptic words before she dies.

The film is a detective-buddy comedy.

It tries to look as if it were made in the 1970s, down to the funky opening soundtrack and dated but once-groovy lettering style of the opening credits.

The 1977 setting puts the action before the dawn of political correctness, and writer / director Shane Black revels in the freedom that the era offered.

People who grew up in the US may remember a TV show called The Rockford Files, with a private eye who always got into trouble, was beat up and almost never paid. Imagine the same scenario with Ryan Gosling as the PI, but with a streetwise 13-year-old daughter who is the more responsible of the two.

Holland March (Gosling) takes the most hopeless of missing person cases just to get the money. He even hustles confused widows who don't understand why their (dead) husbands don't come home.

When we first meet him, he is passed out fully clothed in a bathtub. His daughter has left him a note written on his hand.
Russell Crowe plays enforcer Jackson Healy, the other good guy in the film. He gets paid to break people's bones. Usually the people deserve it, but still the moral code of the film seems a bit on the challenged side.

Much of the film's humor comes from cartoonish, over-the-top violence, while the rest is from wry and sarcastic dialogue. A large part of the story deals with the search for a missing pornographic actress, so women are not depicted in the most modern feminist light, either.

Holland's teenage daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice) does her best to keep her father out of trouble, often driving the car (without a license) when the father is too intoxicated (which is much of the time). She practically steals the movie with her efforts help solve the case while keeping disaster at bay — and her sometimes adult vocabulary. But the film doesn't slip too hard in to Nancy Drew territory. Crowe and Gosling aren't actors to be upstaged that easily.

Healy and March are originally at odds, working on opposite sides of a case that is somehow tied to a pornographic film that nobody has seen. In the 1970s, before home video, porn films had plots, and there was a roster of fairly well-known stars. While the porn topic is discussed a lot, just brief seconds of the films are seen.

One of the people involved in porn mystery is an activist who has been protesting pollution. Locating Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley) is the tread that keeps the plot going. Several shady characters with an interest in Amelia keep popping up to wreak havoc and mayhem.

The more Healy and March look into finding Amelia, the more complex the web of evil around the case becomes.

The film scores well in the re-creation of the era. Holland's outfits in particular are a bit outlandish, but he tries to be a snappy dresser. Healy is more down to earth, but still a clear casualty of the disco era. Both sport closely cropped mustaches and beards.

The women's costumes as well explore the synthetic fabrics and colors of the time. A climactic party scene in the Hollywood Hills is also a fashion-don't extravaganza.

Gosling throws himself into the role of the charismatic yet totally inept and drunken father, taking demeaning jobs just to support his daughter. He has an easy time with comedy and should do it more often. Crowe is more of a straight man in the film, the intentionally less funny of the two buddies. He takes a more world-weary approach but is also not as immune to feelings as he pretends.

But Shane Black's direction is what puts the film over. There were many chances to push the film into parody by overdoing the disco references and making the characters too cartoonish. Everyone plays it straight. The mystery at times seems it will get too absurd, but manages to stay within bounds.

For fans of 1970s urban crime dramas, The Nice Guys is a welcome blast from the past.

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