REVIEW: The Nice Guys

17 05 2016

“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.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 21, 2014)

21 11 2014

Academy Award winner Charlize Theron is Sylvia, a Portland restaurant worker who feels distinctly spiritually absent.  She still has a cutting problem that she manages to keep inconspicuous from the world, and she frequently engages in sex with men in an attempt to feel something.  Theron gives one of those “physically naked signifying emotionally naked” kind of performances, which proves hauntingly effective.

Academy Award winner Kim Basinger is Gina, a wife and mother in New Mexico who can only find happiness in the embrace of her Hispanic lover, Nick.  Their affair crosses not just ethnic but also social class boundaries, two status markers that erect rigid divisions in their small community.

Now an Academy Award winner, Jennifer Lawrence is Mariana, a self-sufficient teen thrown into the responsibilities of surrogate motherhood far too early.  (The character now makes for an interesting antecedent to “Winter’s Bone” as well as “The Hunger Games.”)  She is at a transitional moment in her life, unsure of how to feel about her inattentive mother and budding romantic prospect.  Lawrence marvelously conveys both her tenacity and her insecurity.

“The Burning Plain” is a movie where – gasp! – all these women’s stories connect, as characters often tended to be linked somehow in the first decade of the 2000s.  This is my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” though, because writer/director Guillermo Arriaga ties these disparate storylines into one complete package.  (Arriaga had plenty of practice writing the first three “hyperlink cinema” screenplays for director Alejandro González Iñárritu.)  His film is a plaintive meditation on the paralyzing effects of guilt that lands with somber impact thanks to a carefully crafted script and three quietly moving female performances.