What does it take to make a good movie these days? Money? Star power? A dedicated auteur? A pastiche of ideas that resemble a movie? On the surface, The Nice Guys looks like a movie: it’s got Warner Brothers’ money, it’s got Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in the leads, it’s got writer/director Shane Black doing Shane Black shtick and it’s got murder, mystery, hard-boiled detectives and the gritty streets of L.A. set in 1970s post-modern neo-noir. Check, check, check, double-check. On the surface, The Nice Guys should be a good movie, but surfaces can be deceiving.
Set in smoggy Los Angeles circa 1978, The Nice Guys opens with the Hollywood sign in tatters — before nudie king Hugh Hefner raised the money to restore them to their former/current glory — and then gets things going with the death of a porn star in a spectacular, and disturbingly sexual, car wreck. The body count builds from there. Coincidentally, everyone who bites the big one worked on the same adult film, the one that stars Amelia (Margaret Qualley), and everyone is looking for her. Two private eyes, Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), realize that they are working the same case from different angles and join forces to solve the crime. Their only problem: each other. March is a drunk who can’t get out of his own way — not that it hurts his success rate any — and March is a violent thug with a shady past — a past so shady that it stays out of the movie altogether.
The inebriated and inept March is assisted by his 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who spends the movie entirety in over her head, but that’s not a concern of anyone in the movie. No, the ‘70s were a looser time. There aren’t many rules or consequences here.
The plot is cumbersome, until it becomes painfully obvious who is behind it all, and then it becomes trite. Including the revolving door of henchmen that populate this world: the stoic and psychopathic John Boy (Matt Bomer), the psychotic and harmless (Beau Knapp, doing his best Richard Widmark à la Kiss of Death) and the professional (Keith David).
The case takes March and Healy from San Pedro to the Valley to Chinatown to the Hollywood Hills until the story runs out steam and must come to the ultimate and unsatisfying conclusion downtown. Sure, it makes some sense, but not enough. And not by a mile.
The Nice Guys is a movie too post-modern for it’s own good. Black cobbles together the window dressing of a L.A. noir plot and plants it in 1978 for an affected flavor, but it doesn’t help. The tone is too uneven and the main political bent of the narrative — which works Detroit and the auto industry into the corruption of Los Angeles — is tacked on far too late for it to serve any purpose than the notion of a director thumbing his nose at his audience late in the game.
The only bright spot in this mess is Gosling, who continues to prove himself as a comedian par excellence. This is best captured in one scene where a startled March using a public toilet tries to keep a pistol trained on Healy while holding the bathroom stall door open, cover his genitals with a magazine and pull up his pants. It is a hilarious bit of timing and frustration as March fights with the stall door and Black wisely lets the take run in a nice wide shot capturing Gosling’s actions and facial expressions in the same frame. It’s the lone scene where staging and performance coincide, and they do so beautifully. Unfortunately, there are all those other scenes around it that just don’t, and that’s the movie.