Typically, when a movie gets labeled as one of the “feel-good movies of the summer”, there’s a set of expectations that accompany such a distinction. Gentle, breezy humor, romance, and an ending that ends well for our protagonists are, more or less, the order of the day. Less typical of the “feel-good” movie is, say, a porn star dying a fiery death in the film’s opening moments. The Nice Guys, the new buddy cop movie from the genre’s master Shane Black, is one such oddity.
The plot: The year is 1977, and porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) has just died in a car crash in the LA suburbs. Believing Misty to still be alive, her aunt hires recently-widowed and frequently drunk private-eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) to find a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) who might have a connection to Misty. Amelia paid hired-muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to protect her from March, who she believes to be a stalker. One physical altercation and broken arm later, March and Healy learn that more sinister forces are trying to kill Amelia and the people around her. March and Healy begrudgingly join forces and –with the help of Holland’s 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice)– journey from the Hollywood Hills to LA’s seedy underbelly as they unravel the conspiracy at the heart of the case.
What makes The Nice Guys so fresh and welcome isn’t the materials themselves, but the way writer and director Shane Black presents them. The Nice Guys borrows liberally from classic LA noir and crime movies, sprinkling dashes of movies like Chinatown, The Big Lebowski (and, naturally, The Big Sleep) with more than a few nods to LA Confidential (a comparison helped along by a certain cameo) into the mix. While not quite satire or parody of the genre, The Nice Guys deals in exaggerating the familiar elements of LA crime stories past and letting its characters loose upon it.
As it just so happens, the characters let loose on 70s LA are wonderful. Like the romantic comedy, no matter how good of a script the thing has, the buddy cop movie is usually only as good as the chemistry between its two leads*. In this regard, Crowe and Gosling excel. Crowe’s Healy reads a lot like a revisiting of his role in LA Confidential nearly 20 years ago. Healy is a world-worn old bruiser; unfailingly practical, but untethered from the people around him until he meets well-meaning fuckup March and Holly. And what a great well-meaning fuckup Gosling is. Far from the laconic cool that’s made up so much of Gosling’s career since Drive, March is a panicky, sloppy, and forlorn mess; and bless him for it. Gosling disappears into the character in a way that Crowe necessarily doesn’t, obscured as he is by a rockin’ 70s ‘stache and a role that’s sharply against type. Gosling plays the slightly more complex of the two as a man trying hard to be a good father (a grammar lesson is one of the more memorable moments of the movie) and good detective in spite of an inability to get over himself or cope with his grief over his wife’s death that’s in any way constructive. Shane Black strikes gold in his pairing by exploring new dimensions. Rather than returning to the well of “old and grizzled/ young loose cannon” he makes The Nice Guys a movie about two people equally washed-up and listless in very different ways coming together to make some sense of the world together.
Rounding out this unconventional family, and maybe The Nice Guys‘ most artful coup is the addition of Angourie Rice as Holly. There’s a trapeze act of sorts in adding an Adorable Moppet into the mix of a story, yielding as many failures as successes across the board. Even for Black, whose track record in working with and writing for kids in movies like The Monster Squad and Iron Man 3 is pretty solid, it’s still a risk. Happily, Rice more than holds her own against Gosling and Crowe and can without dispute be labeled the heart and soul (and not infrequently the only clearly thinking mind) of The Nice Guys. Rice plays Holly with a fine-tuned balance of sincerity and bite, playing the sort of character who will try to talk a man down from committing a murder but pull a gun on someone with the rote calm of someone who’s familiar with the process.
Actually, sincerity and bite are pretty much the combination that make up The Nice Guys as a whole. This is a movie about loveable losers in a hilariously corrupt world that puts the emphasis on “loveable”. Even the sinister bastards of LA’s underworld are hard not to love, with Beau Knapp and Keith David playing a world-class pair of henchman and Matt Bomer stealing his few scenes as a slickly terrifying assassin. Because, at the end of the day, in spite of all the blood splatter, boobs, and scumbaggery, The Nice Guys is a shockingly good-natured story told in a cynical world.
In a summer blockbuster landscape of much-bemoaned remakes and sequels, The Nice Guys is a fun, bloody, and incredibly funny original film and a solid staple of any summer moviegoers diet.
*or lead and funny animal, I suppose.