“Kids these days know too much,” bemoans Russell Crowe’s private enforcer Jackson Healey at the start of “The Nice Guys.” It’s the classic set-up for a film noir – a world-weary narrator imparts an unsolicited bit of cynical wisdom about the current state of affairs. Granted, Healey has the misfortune of cruising around 1977 Los Angeles, the city where the genre was born, at its smoggiest and smuttiest.
The setting is the perfect playground for writer/director Shane Black to collide many different scenes and styles into one another. There’s the pre-AIDS pornography crowd so memorably profiled in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” the Philip Marlowe detective escapades of “Inherent Vice” or Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” along with the ominously pervasive civic corruption of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.” And all the madness of the era gets filtered through the main narrative engine of a buddy cop film, the very genre that put Black’s writing on the map with 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.”
The film might sound like an odd grab-bag of references or – worse – an uninspired remix. “The Nice Guys” is anything but. Black, along with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi, puts together a wild ride for two private eyes that tours the landscape with fun, laughter and insight to spare.
Though the unspectacularly effective Healey may be the first character introduced, Ryan Gosling absolutely steals the show as bumbling private eye Holland March. He whips out comedic chops that were only faintly glimpsed in previous films like “Crazy Stupid Love” and “The Big Short.” Remarkably, however, Black makes his incompetence and lacking masculinity a font of great humor – but rarely the punchline. Gosling willingly and gleefully sends up the hyper-macho persona he cultivated so carefully in films like “Drive,” adding a nice meta level to the performance as well.
March might blunder far more than his unwitting companion, yet “The Nice Guys” never falls into a simple comic man-straight man routine. Each characters gets their successes and their setbacks; not knowing whose will come at what moment makes the film even more exciting to watch.
Together, Healey and March follow a missing girl and another supposedly undead one into a ring of collusion that involves multiple cities, industries and agencies. If not for all the laughs in “The Other Guys,” it would represent the kind of interlocked conspiracy that sends our better angels fleeing for the hills. Yet the brokenness is not the point. Nor is the rottenness. In spite of the film’s noir trappings, Black whistles a distinctly different tune – one of hope and optimism.
March may be at the center of the film, though he is not its heart. That distinction belongs to his precocious daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). She has no problem telling her father that he’s a bad guy, and that noble intentions alone do not make him a nice guy. While Holly might appear a mere supporting character, she actually serves more like a third wheel to the investigation. If “The Nice Guys” is a buddy cop film, then Healey and March ought to be considered as one unit with Holly as their partner and challenger.
Every time the two men begin to delight in a violent or vengeful act, Holly is there to call them out and set them straight. (It’s as much an intervention for the audiences as it is for the characters, too.) Her youthful innocence makes up a portion of her black-and-white worldview, but Holly’s wits and smarts are such that naïveté alone cannot fully explain her aversion to unnecessary bloodshed. A generation gap of empathy and understanding seems to be a bigger point of divergence.
Holly in 1977 would have been roughly the same age as Shane Black at the time. Both are on the thin line between Baby Boomers and Generation X, on the razor’s edge of cognizance to the disillusionment of the late ’60s and the Nixonian era of national shame. Maybe this cohort will disdain their forbearers’ proclivity for operating in the shades of gray, which may very well be the root cause of all the widespread fraud throughout the structures of authority.
Gosling’s March speculates that in five years’ time from the film, everyone will be driving electric cars from Japan. It’s a risibly incorrect vision of the future from someone who can barely grasp the ramifications of the present. I think I will place a bet on whatever Holly sees on the horizon, and I suspect Black does as well. Fatalism need not define the film noir or the detective tale so long as there is the promise of rejuvenating youthfulness to correct the wrongs done in the past.
Suspicion of youth by an older, entrenched group grumbling about their supposed destructive capabilities is nothing new. Heck, it’s still around, just rebooted for millennials. But perhaps, this time, the kids are alright. B+ /