I was pretty excited to see The Nice Guys based solely on pedigree. Writer/director Shane Black wrote Lethal Weapon, which still holds up thirty years later, and more recently Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a fantastically funny Hollywood noir with a sharp script and subversive eye. The Nice Guys looked like it would pick up the ball where KKBB left off and run with it, except this time as a period piece. The Nice Guys definitely feels familiar from Black’s previous work, and is still a ton of fun, but feels much more minor. This maybe is due to the higher expectations that come with a higher profile, but while all that makes Black’s previous films works is in high gear here, some of his baggage is amplified too.
As in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon, The Nice Guys is a mismatched buddy comedy through and through, with Russell Crowe’s no-nonsense goon Jackson Healy paired with Ryan Gosling’s worst-PI-ever Holland March (although unlike those previous movies, there’s not a Christmas tree in sight). The Nice Guys gets some great mileage out of the detective’s relatively hands-off approach to case solving: they mostly luck their way into any clues, or anything that comes close to giving them an upper hand. March in particular is stunningly incompetent for a protagonist, with his alcoholism being played simultaneously for laughs and pathos, but never giving him a major Sherlock Holmes moment to justify his ineptitude. In a different movie focusing on the players with more agency in the goings-on, they’d be an amusing Greek chorus commenting on the lunacy. Said lunacy involves smog-protesting hippies, the Detroit auto industry, and big porno, allowing it to paint its own portrait of 70s LA that mostly avoids lights-camera-action moments despite film being a major part of the puzzle.
The two detectives are accompanied by March’s daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who is a nice presence at the start but quickly becomes the precocious child detective trope Black used so distractingly in Iron Man 3. Holly gets some good Harriet the Spy moments in, but either exists to be in distress or to exhibit insane overcompetence. She also ties into the movie’s most insufferable theme, where it stops every so often to talk about being a good person. It’s most notable towards the end (and fairly funny the first time it pops up), and its heavy-handedness sucks the air out of the final sequence.
At the end of it all though, The Nice Guys is worth seeing because, if nothing else, its really funny. A lot of the good stuff is in the trailer, but there’s plenty more here to enjoy. In particular, Ryan Gosling is a revelation. The bathroom door scene in the trailer is the most obvious example, but he has a knack for physical comedy and playing the clown, and the movie takes full advantage of it. It makes him scream and fall a lot, sure, but it also feels completely of a piece with the character he and Black craft through the dialogue, one who shares his daughter’s antipathy of her friend Janet and seemingly can’t get through an insult with an reductio ad Hitlerum. Russell Crowe is nicely laid-back in the straight man role, letting his physicality do the work and avoiding going full ham. The Nice Guys has a bit of a problem creating memorable side characters, despite the presence of Keith David and Kim Basinger in the margins, and its two main villains, Matt Bomer’s John Boy and Beau Knapp’s Blueface, are both disappointing, but some weird visual flourishes are certainly memorable (although some, notably a bee incident, are a bit too much). The Nice Guys is a bit of a disappointment for those who expected Black to come up with a stone-cold classic, but its a fun way to kill an afternoon.
The Nice Guys (2016)
Dir. Shane Black
Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, and Kim Basinger
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)