MOVIE REVIEW: The Nice Guys
"THE NICE GUYS"-- 3 STARS
The simplest dictionary definition of the term "throwback" reads "a person or thing that is similar to someone or something from the past or that is suited to an earlier time." That is the dreamy goal of Shane Black's "The Nice Guys." With its high flair, classic toys, and vintage production value, the film seethes a groovy blend of action and comedy that harks back to the swinging 1970s of forty years ago. Many will be quick to love "The Nice Guys," slapping their knee with a "Gosh, they don't make them like they used to" enthusiasm for its vibe and forget that there were reasons why these types of action comedies played themselves out decades ago.
Presented as a sunny noir for the "Boogie Nights" crowd, "The Nice Guys" highlights a pair of vastly different hired hands. Jackson Healy, played by Russell Crowe, is an arm-breaking enforcer of few words, an iron will, and a teetering sense of honor. His foil is Ryan Gosling's corruptible screw-up ex-cop Holland March, a terrible private investigator working the classified ads by mostly swindling old ladies for cash on simple jobs. Healy lives a solitary life with his pet fish while March is a widower trying to not be a total failure to his impressionable teenage daughter Holly (newcomer Angourie Rice).
Working different sides of the same missing person case that started with the death of a popular porn star named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) causes their paths to cross in humorous manner of initial animosity. The person of interest is a girl named Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley), the daughter of a Judith Kutner (Academy Award winner Kim Basinger), a high-ranking official in the Justice Department. The free-spirit Amelia may have gotten herself either mistakenly or intentionally mixed up in a conspiracy and cover-up involving both the porn and auto industries that could defame her mother. and both circles of business. Choosing to combine their efforts for profit, Healy and March, with Holly tagging along, uncover secrets, question truths, make enemies, and discover plenty of hot water to land in along the way.
The aforementioned connection to "Boogie Nights" stands as a good comparison for "The Nice Guys." When done right, the 1970s is a glamorous decade to visit in small, indulgent doses like "The Nice Guys." From an aesthetic standpoint, it is a blast to cruise the old seedy and decadent sides of Los Angeles and period-perfect artistry paints every frame. The film goes out of its way to push a head-bopping and toe-tapping soundtrack intermixed with a funky score collaboration from John Ottman and David Buckley. Director Shane Black ("Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "Iron Man 3") knows how to collect all of the possible style points in his pictures.
"The Nice Guys" unleashes an arsenal of off-beat traits and playful banter available to every character and situation large and small. Calling it a loose cannon is both a criticism and a complement. Though it can veer off of the rails to some scatterbrained wheel-spinning that pushes limits of tolerance and believability, the screenplay from Black and first-timer Anthony Bagarozzi delivers its muckraking mystery with a canny enough level of perpetual action and a clever humor. Its nimble gags avoid the low-hanging, gross-out fruit of today's outlandish R-rated action comedies that fashion themselves as being born from this better era (i.e. just about every Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell movie in the last 15 years).
From an action comedy standpoint, the winning charm required is released in spades. Crowe and Gosling exhibit an infectious natural chemistry. Like a hustling poker player, Gosling plays the pathetic loser role to perfection with an invested dedication to his zany and go-for-broke physical and behavioral characterizations of March. By contrast, Crowe masterfully masks a host of redeeming heart-of-gold qualities underneath his Healy that give you a second hero to root for in the film. You will want to watch those two guys bust each other's balls all night, but, unfortunately, there's a distracting third wheel that nearly ruins all of the pulpy sharpness in "The Nice Guys."
Granted, one can easily accept that Angourie Rice's Holly embodies the missing conscience between the flaws of Healy and March. That's all well and good, and the young actress does a fine job in her first major feature, but there is absolutely no need to make her the constant Velma for this long-form "Scooby Doo" episode. She is, too often, the smartest person in the room completely mitigating the two gumshoes trying to figure out this caper. Holly can be the symbolic moral compass on the sidelines at home. Honestly, the presence of a child one-upping the leads softens any hard-scrabble noir edge this movie needed to balance the colorful shenanigans. In that way, "The Nice Guys" falls short of any Elmore Leonard-like supremacy in this genre.
LESSON #1: IF YOU CARRY A GUN FOR WORK, LEAVE YOUR KID AT HOME-- Call this common sense and good parenting. If your kid stows away and butts in, assert yourself and your authority. Send them home yourself with a swift slap to the back of the head and a long talk.
LESSON #2: BE SPECIFIC WHEN YOU TALK-- This very writer states this lesson from the film not to end sentences with "and stuff" while knowing full well that you have read over 850 wordy words of elaboration just to get to this point. Still, "Dragnet" was right to just want to get the facts.
LESSON #3: EVEN SINNERS HAVE CONSCIENCES AND PRINCIPLES-- Somewhere deep down in their mistakes and negative temperaments, bad people have hearts and care about certain things. Two prime examples are Healy and March. They aren't as black as the criminals they chase, but their vices and character flaws stunt them from always acting with the right morals in mind.