Garbage in is garbage out, but good performances can still save bad movies from themselves. They can also polish average movies with just enough elbow grease they end up looking like gems. Think Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, or Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Think Matt Damon in We Bought a Zoo, or Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Shane Black’s The Nice Guys isn’t terrible—it just ducks mediocrity—but every advance it takes toward quality is made on the strengths of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.
Black is as quick with action scenes as with punchlines. His film is a jocose saturation campaign meant to disguise the shortcomings of his plot and story with pell-mell hilarity. Bemoaning those shortcomings is wasted effort, though: The Nice Guys works. It’s funny. It’s exciting. If you find yourself growing tired of wordplay, Black will turn things around and slide in some Three Stooges slapstick. If you get tired of that, he’ll set off a gun or throw a few punches, though it is impossible to imagine anybody finding the clownish sight of Gosling tumbling off of balconies or crashing through plate glass tiresome.
Like hanging out with your college friends and realizing you can’t tear it up at 30 like you could at 20, sometimes The Nice Guys pauses to catch its breath, and that’s where we’re stuck waiting between its respirations. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang this is not. It isn’t even Iron Man 3. The former film is indefatigable in its enthusiasm for Black’s material, as well as for his stars. The latter is a Saturday morning cartoon tinged with his stylistic particularities, a proper blend of “grit,” the buzziest of comic book movie buzzwords and snappy humor. By contrast, The Nice Guys can’t keep up with the expectations Black has created for himself since first settling into the director’s chair in 2005, even as it stubbornly tries to match them.
The film takes place in 1970s Los Angeles, where Holland March (Gosling) and Jack Healy (Crowe) ply their respective trades against a backdrop that’s as rich and vibrant as it is nasty and violent. Holland is a private eye, the world’s very worst, a lousy drunk and lousier father who can’t perform simple gumshoe tasks without requiring that emergency services stitch him up afterward. Jackson is a tough-for-hire who deals with problems—say, overage boys dating underage girls—from the business end of his brass knuckles (unless he forgets them at home). He’s a bruiser, but a bruiser with a sense of decency. Holland is on the trail of a missing young woman who has hired Jackson to keep Holland from stalking her. Thus they meet, with Holland face down on the floor and screeching after Jackson snaps his wrist. Hell of a way to make acquaintances.
Not long after their first encounter, Holland and Jackson decide to merge their investigations and find the absentee lass together, which sends them through the underbelly of L.A.’s porn biz, the ethically shady world of the American auto industry and the half-assed protestations of lazy countercultural revolution. To describe The Nice Guys as “convoluted” is to describe Godzilla as “big.” The film is as twisting and meandering as any hardboiled detective yarn from the era to which Black pays tribute. It’s in the range of Chinatown and Inherent Vice, though comparing The Nice Guys to these films is prejudicial. Even the best version of The Nice Guys wouldn’t be as good as either, and this isn’t the best version of The Nice Guys Black could have made. It’s the version that looks like it was directed by Shane Black’s lethargic doppelganger.
You’ve seen this film before, but The Nice Guys’ problem isn’t mimicry or originality. It’s anemia. Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi have authored a screenplay so thin that gusts of wind breeze through it. The stakes are low to nil if they’re identified at all. You know why Holland and Jackson bother with the case, why they care about dead porn stars, runaway girls and missing experimental adult films, but you don’t necessarily understand. Occasionally the film takes stabs at substance through character: Jackson wants to feel useful; Holland wants his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice, the best part of the movie that isn’t Gosling or Crowe), to think better of him. Together, they stand mystified by the youth of the day and the period’s fluctuating social landscape. It makes the interludes between comedy and calamity bearable, but it doesn’t put meat on the film’s bones.
Praise be to the leads, then. Gosling and Crowe are a great pair, so great that their team-up should justify funding for a buddy picture series where Holland and Jackson undertake jobs that spiral out of hand and above their pay grades. Crowe plays it straight and grumpy, lending Jackson a “seen it before” mopiness. You half expect him to declare that he’s too old for this shit at any given moment. Gosling, on the other hand, shapes Holland through boozy tomfoolery and pratfalls. They’re a standout odd couple, but Black’s films are defined by great odd couples as much as they are by great scripting. In The Nice Guys, he leaves it up to Gosling and Crowe to use the former to fill in the gaps left behind by the lack of the latter.
Director: Shane Black
Writer: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger, Beau Knapp
Release Date: May 20, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Movie Mezzanine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.