In 1970s Los Angeles, two private investigators are forced to cooperate to solve the murder of a porn star. Their personal investigation styles don’t match, but through blunder, fool’s luck and freak coincidences do they win the day.
The Nice Guys is a rare movie that nevertheless reminds you of a small selection of beloved classics. It is rare because Hollywood has put so much weight on franchises, but it will also remind you of every movie ever set in Los Angeles. Set in the 1970s, complete with all the soft colors, cars, drugs, moustaches and jazz music, no chance is left unused to impress the time and place on us. 70s music is in the background all the time and we even get a glimpse of an Earth, Wind and Fire show. It will also remind you of every movie set in that time or place with a large and funny cast and a convoluted story, such as The Big Lebowski (1998). It has action scenes that could have been set in scenes of Boogie Nights (1997) and a detective story reminiscent of Inherent Vice (2014).
OMG I just realized that there was a cameo of a young Dirk Diggler in the film, from Boogie Nights.
Director Shane Black is not out to invent something totally new, but to make stylistic choices to make his movie part of that familiar artistic stream of movies. It is like lowering yourself in a warm bath. Even so, the movie didn’t pull me in immediately. I had to adjust a bit to its sense of humor and its pacing, which are a bit uneven at the beginning. I think the first 15 minutes are actually a bit messy in its storytelling, when both the mystery and the characters are established. It happens really fast with only a handful of witty dialogue to guide us.
The success of The Nice Guys is largely thanks to the characters of Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and his daughter Holly March (Angourie Rice). They make a trio of characters that play off wonderfully of each other. Crowe is the tough guy who nevertheless wants to be respectable and struggles with his inner violence. Gosling is the talkative wise guy who can be dishonest and cowardly and is quite incompetent, but wants to be a good father. The addition of Angourie Rice, a young snappy teenager who wants to help her father out, balances out all this macho with an element of vulnerability that makes all the characters quite endearing.
Thankfully, Angourie Rice does a very good job. The movie could easily have been pulled down by an annoying teenager, but Rice’s Holly March feels natural and her presence creates deeper layers in Crowe’s and Goslings macho men. The characters are not as unique as in The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice and especially the villains were not very interesting in The Nice Guys. It is not a big loss for the movie, because there is plenty of camaraderie and comedy to make up for that. Speaking of comedy, what it does quite well is setting up jokes that pay off later in the story. But occasionally this method is too transparent, when we are too conscious of jokes being set up.
While Crowe is playing a tough guy that comes very naturally to him, Gosling and Angourie Rice are the real pleasant surprises. Gosling has a great comedic timing and a dynamism to his acting, and Rice is an upcoming young star showing a lot of promise. The action scenes are quite good too, much more complex than simple fighting between people. There are chases and exciting turns of fortune and comedy all rolled into one satisfying wrap.
So, even though The Nice Guys feels like a movie that mimics other movies and is occasionally a bit transparent in its methods, it is still a breath of fresh air in the theatre. See it for the snappy dialogue between Crowe and Gosling and some brilliant moments of comedic action.