Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are comedy gold but The Nice Guys can’t overcome a sloppy script.
You are the world’s worst detective..
Shane Black is the king of the modern buddy action comedy. From Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Black always imbues his films with characters with sharp tongues, if not always sharp wits, who must work together to solve a mystery. Murtaugh & Riggs. Lockhart & Gay Perry. The formula is even present in Iron Man 3 when Tony Stark enlists a precocious 10-year old to help him rebuild his suit and solve a global conspiracy. Black has found a formula where he excels.
So don’t be surprised to hear that The Nice Guys stars Ryan Gosling as Holland March, a luckless private detective, and Russell Crowe as Jackson Healy, a hired enforcer, who team up to solve a case in 1977 Los Angeles. Hijinks ensue. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a formula that works as long as you can keep it fresh.
Holland March isn’t much of a detective because he spends the majority of his investigative cash on liquor, and the majority of his investigative energy on gleaning just enough information to keep his patrons willing to part with another week’s expenses. If it wasn’t for his young daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), he’d probably have slipped into a life of squalor a long time ago. The mysterious suicide of an attractive porn star catches both his interest and his arousal, and he spends countless hours trying to convince the elderly, coke bottle glasses-wearing relative of “Misty Mountains” that Misty is not secretly roaming the streets of LA.
March knows that this is a simple case of mistaken identity, and that a young woman named Amelia Kutner (Margaret Qualley) is the likely culprit, but his investigation into Amelia leaves him with a broken arm courtesy of Crowe’s Healy. Crowe is happy to take Amelia’s money and intimidate March into buzzing off, but when two hitmen target accost him for information about her whereabouts, Healy suspects that this case goes deeper than he originally expected. When he ultimately confronts March where the detective can’t run away in fear (a bowling alley toilet), he convinces the twice-shy P.I. that they’re best served investigating Amelia together.
The film’s greatest asset is Crowe and Gosling’s chemistry and full commitment. Black puts his film’s tone and banter at the forefront, letting the case unspool in due time as long as the audience is enjoying the laughs with these two schmoes. Gosling continues to shed the yoke of his romantic lead-worthy good looks in favor of more intriguing roles. His turn as March is a continuation of his work in The Big Short where he moonlighted as an equally unappealing man, but in The Nice Guys he’s traded smugness and business suits for 1970s lounge suits and a magnificent mustache. March is often the butt of the jokes, more than once rolling down a hill in complete drunkenness and, literally, stumbling onto clues, but Gosling is fully committed to playing the dolt. Holland March might be a great detective if he could ever stay out of his own way, but The Nice Guys is happy to assuage your fear that such a thing would ever happen as March throws back drink after drink in every scene.
Equally devoted to shedding his leading man status, Crowe gained a substantial amount of weight for his role as Healy, and spends the film playing the straight man to Gosling’s stooge. The two actors easily slide into Black’s neo-noir version of late-70s Los Angeles, and, somehow, even manage to functionally manage their case as they dodge endless clips of bullets. The setup is great, the chemistry is crackling, and I’d be thrilled to ride along on another adventure with March and Healy, passable detectives. Black has fully created a world that I’d love to spend time in. The problem is that this case isn’t ultimately satisfying.
Shane Black has followed this formula before, and, unfortunately, he’s done it much better, most notably in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Once you move past the laughs and the neon gleam of the LA porn underworld there isn’t a lot that holds The Nice Guys together. Black’s writing is unexpectedly sloppy, and the final case is underwhelming. I hope you’re familiar with what purpose a catalytic converter plays in your car’s exhaust system.
Margaret Qualley is wonderful in her few quick scenes as the mysterious Amelia, but the same can’t be said for the woman playing her mother, Kim Basinger. I’m sure Shane Black thought he was being extra clever by harkening back to Crowe and Basinger’s acclaimed work in the neo-noir L.A. Confidential, but when was the last time you remember seeing her in a big role? Maybe there’s a reason for that. She comes of incredibly flat, equally unconvincing as a concerned mother and the pragmatic, powerful head of the justice department.
The film also doesn’t do enough with Matt Bomer as a Willard Styles lookalike-come-legendary assassin named John Boy (Waltons reference intended). Bomer is magnetic, but he seemingly serves no purpose other than to spray a hail of bullets at Healy and March while magically hitting nothing.
Basinger and Bomer are indicative of the film’s problems. It’s all flash and no substance. There isn’t enough done with the effects of March’s alcoholism or the ways it affects his ability to sustain his relationship with his daughter and his, literally, broken home. His daughter and Healy’s brief intervention is comically short and simple, revealing of Black’s messy writing. Healy’s one encounter with life purpose gets a 90-second flashback before being forgotten in another round of jokes, only to rear its head in a ham-fisted search for meaning at the film’s climax. It all leaves The Nice Guys feeling disappointingly disposable.
Yes, the film is very funny, but I couldn’t help but feel like The Nice Guys could have been so much better. I know Black can do better because I’ve seen it before, and I ultimately wanted more from the film. The rumor is that The Nice Guys actually started out as a TV pilot before Black morphed it into a feature film, and that makes perfect sense. I’d love to see these characters with this setup in a limited cable series where the writers got a chance to fully flesh out the emotions and plot. Everything about The Nice Guys works to set up a series of great adventures, but the show needs to cover a lot of ground before it arrives at a satisfying season finale. Unfortunately, in this form at least, The Nice Guys will never get there.