Black Times in LA
An elevator pitch might suggest The Nice Guys would deliver a hipster buddy-comedy: a Beverly Hills Cop with Boogie Nights period nostalgia and skewed noir like an adaptation of Jonathan Letham's Motherless Brooklyn. The final deliverable is something a bit different, with stronger family traits to other films in writer-director Shane Black's catalogue.
The dramatic opening would fit perfectly in a reboot of the Lethal Weapon franchise (Black, writer). It opens in one of those gorgeous LA mid-modern homes set in the side of a hill. A young teen (Ty Simpkins, Iron Man 3), sneaks into his parents' bedroom to snag a skin mag from under their bed. He opens the centerfold: "actress," Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio, The Duff). As he wanders through the house, absorbed, we see a sports car break through the guardrail from a window behind him. By the time he reaches the end of a hallway, the car tears it in half, before crashing in flames below the house. The boy climbs down the hill, finds the porn star thrown from the car, exposed and posed as in the centerfold. Her dying words, "How do you like my car, big boy?"
After opening credits, meet Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe, The Insider, LA Confidential), a heavy for hire. His bread and butter is kicking the shit out of men playing with girls, his bills paid by a concerned father or by the girl herself. Cut to Holland March (Ryan Goslin, The Big Short, Drive), a private dick, whose bread and butter is getting evidence of infidelities, but who isn't above taking cases from senile widows.
Hired by Misty Mountain's aunt, who swears she saw her niece two days after her death, March is following-up on a lead and asking around for a girl named Amelia. Amelia (Margaret Qualiey) hires Healy to take care of men who have been stalking her. Healy finds March before he finds Amelia; Healy breaks March's arm. Later, as things don't add up, Healy returns and hires March to help him find Amelia. Complexities and money pile on, when the head of the Justice department (Kim Bassinger, LA Confidential) also hires them to find Amelia, her estranged daughter.
There are a number of funny moments in the film. Do not watch the official trailer, as it exploits most of them. But the film never quite feels as comedic as the Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, or even Die Hard franchises do. If anything, as one classic scene with Gosling brings to mind, Healy and March are more comparable to Abbott and Costello, but with an edge.
Nice Guys is more at home with Black's other mainstream work, Iron Man 3 (director & writer), which does more than any other film in the Marvel canon to complicate its hero, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Less Than Zero), who suffers from PTSD in a world as much beset by terrorist networks as by mutant or intergalactic threats.
The thrust of the noir genre on Nice Guys are anti-heroes as leads. Healy is brutal. On the job, he has his code, and he is all business, but he is broken and excessive, beating men to pulp or killing them even if they've been incapacitated. March is an idiot and an opportunist; a drunk and a loving but inept single dad. March is the trickster opposite Healy's salt of the earth everyman. Both men are cynics and bit players suffocating in the 1977 LA smog that is at the heart of the pseudo-noir's plot twists.
Crowe fully inhabits his character, from looking natural in a blue leather jacket shaking down perps to being won over by Marsh's daughter who convinces him to pull back from the edge of evil. Gosling has the more fun role, wearing leisure suites and taking prat falls off balconies. Yet he never comes off self-consciously by taking the piss out of the artifice of 70s threads or the scenes where he is the cowardly lion.
Angourie Rice as Marsh's daughter, Holly, and the other child actors, Simpkin in his cameo and Lance Valentine Butler as a smart ass "Kid on Bike," are spot-on. The goring of thugs, Keith David (There's Something About Mary, Platoon), Beau Knapp (The Signal), Yaya DaCosta (The Kids Are All Right), Matt Bomer (White Collar TV series) are all memorable. Bassinger's screen time is too short, if sweet.
The film may have trouble finding a large audience given how dark it is, in spite of having a foot in the buddy film tradition. Also, the underlying noir conspiracies never really gel as clever, for those looking for ideas. However, the film succeeds by complicating its character types and with excellent casting and performances and maybe that's enough.