Will Schube’s favorite wrestling move is the Half Nelson.
Sometimes a goofy movie hits as hard as a serious one. The Nice Guys certainly isn’t the best movie of 2016, but it’s tough to find a movie I’ve had more fun watching so far this year.
If the Academy ever displayed anything resembling bravery, Ryan Gosling would get an Oscar nod for his role as Holland March—single father schlub turned private detective. Russell Crowe is oddly charming as well, playing Jackson Healy, a character whose first move is always a pummeling right hook. These two form a strange tandem in Shane Black’s story, a film equally indebted to the tropes of genre past yet unwilling to fully commit itself to any vision except its own. All of this creates something oddly charming, as Black’s film is a non-blockbuster big budget film—a concept that shouldn’t exist in our decimated post-theatrical movie landscape.
With the success Shane Black has already found, I wouldn’t blame him for retiring on a beach far, far away from Hollywood and never answering an agent’s phone call again. The dude wrote Lethal Weapon before he was 30! Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is stellar. People have hung their hats on a lot flimsier racks. But Black is back with The Nice Guys, a film that wreaks of his wonderful eccentricities and is bogged down by his usual schlock.
Simultaneously treading buddy cop territory without ever fully committing to it, The Nice Guys feels like the sort of movie scholars and students would have had a fun time analyzing back when people cared about that sort of thing .
Gosling plays a single father who drinks a bit too much, and his daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is precocious and ever willing to get herself in the middle of a gun fight to help out her pops. Russell Crowe is the beaten down vet, somehow both chubby and able to punch harder than Mayweather on a good day. His distaste for simple human interaction grows exponentially over the course of the film’s two hours, yet he and Gosling somehow get along despite the latter’s constant fuck ups and the former’s unwillingness to empathize.
After having met by pursuing opposite ends of the same case, private eyes March and Healy are dragged into a world of porn, parties, government conspiracies, and car shows. Gosling is all silliness and sappiness. Crowe is the detective character you’ve seen a million times. Bogart in 1975, a constantly skeptical Jean-Paul Belmondo with a gut.
The Nice Guys shares stylistic similarities with another Warner Brothers detective-but-not-really story, Inherent Vice (2014). But whereas Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) was pre-occupied by his ex-old lady Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), March and Healy are swallowed by the idea of doing honest-to-God good work and a better life in late-’70s LA. This isn’t the world of hippie utopia torn to shambles, but one of corporate excess trumping the greater good. It takes its cues from the rise of pornography, centering its plot around a faux-sex flick that attempts to expose government conspiracy and the dirt upon which capitalism plants its seed. Sex sells.
Inherent Vice spread itself outwards, introducing plot upon plot that never had any aspirations towards coherence. It relied steadily on physical gags and snappy dialogue. The Nice Guys uses a few central threads to proliferate its story to the tentpoles of deceit and trickery. It’s a big budget movie masked as an indie thriller. Inherent lite.
It would have been nice if Shane Black had taken his film to more innovative territory, as the film feels to have missed a genuine opportunity to be a really, really interesting 21st century movie. But The Nice Guys treads too close to crime conventions a few times to be canonical; conceits for the big WB bosses, I suppose.
The Nice Guys is at its best when Gosling is falling over balconies and yelling with his pants around his ankles. The chase scenes have been done better for more money and the shoot-outs are dull. The movie hinges on slapstick and debauchery, and the comedy inherent in these stylistic choices. When Black sits back and lets his actors work, they have a unique ability to transcend any mundane plot points and crowd-pleasing conceits.
The Nice Guys is at its best when it loosens itself from the jaws of plot and action, instead savoring the details and physical humor between its narrative structure. The moments of belly-aching laughter and Dionysian party hopping. In this way it most resembles Inherent Vice—a film so knottily complex you can’t help but distance yourself from the plot and simply watch instead. The Nice Guys isn’t this complex but its success follows the same formula. While you can no longer show up at a movie theater without being bombarded by multiple superhero reboots, The Nice Guys proves that there’s still room for the mid-budget romp.
Rating: If you like fun things on big screens, see this movie.