Review: Shane Black's 'The Nice Guys' is a raw, rough, rowdy delight
Shockingly, this is not a Christmas movie.
In every other way, though, it is a Shane Black movie, and that is reason enough to rejoice. I am more than willing to cop to the fact that part of what I like about Shane Black is that he evidently loves the exact same things I love, and for the exact same reasons. When someone’s making art that hews so closely to my ideal aesthetic, I start half-in-the-bag for the thing. I’ve written often about my love of LA detective stories, especially when set in different eras of the city’s development. Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Towne, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly… lots of guys have mined this territory to terrific effect, and I have no doubt I’ll take my own shot at it someday. What Black does here is very different than what Paul Thomas Anderson did in Inherent Vice, but it works for me just as completely as that did. The Nice Guys is set during the 1970s, and it’s the height of LA-as-a-smog-factory era, with brown skies so toxic that people have to watch the news to see if it’s safe to go outside. I visited LA in 1980, and it was a very different place than it was a mere ten years later when I moved here. Los Angeles made a serious effort to clean up the air, and it worked, and I think some people may not realize just how bad it got at a certain point.
Black remembers, though, and he makes sure to paint a vivid portrait of the moment he’s trying to capture. From the opening shot, looking down at the city past the ruined, battered letter of the neglected Hollywood sign, he’s capturing a city that feels defeated, beaten down, and struggling to do better. That goes doubly for his two leads here, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Healy is muscle-for-hire, willing to break arms to send messages but polite about it, and March is a private eye who seems unsure if he’d rather be a con man or the real deal, landing somewhere in-between. The two of them meet the first time when Healy is sent to break March’s arm, but the reason for that is left a bit muddy at first. It has something to do with March’s hunt for Amelia (Margaret Qualley, somehow even more bruised here than she is on The Leftovers), a girl he’s trying to find. Why? Well, everyone’s looking for her. There’s her mother, Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), who says she’s concerned about Amelia’s well-being but who also happens to be the head of LA’s office of the Department of Justice. There are other more sinister party interested, including the hilariously-nicknamed John Boy (Matt Bomer), and very quickly, Healy and March unite so they can figure out how the death of the apty-stagenamed Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) somehow ties into both the porn industry and the auto industry, aside from the fact that she died in a car.
First and foremost, this is a film that glides along on chemistry, and the energy between Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling is positively explosive. I love these two together. It is preposterous how much joy they seem to take from playing these scenes with one another. Crowe is a big snarling half-cocked punch of a human being, surly and serious about it, while March is a complete mess. His wife recently passed away, and he responded by crawling into a bottle. This has strained his otherwise-awesome relationship with Holly (Angourie Rice), his daughter, who is both prematurely wise and genuinely vulnerable, her own strength tested by the sight of her father in free-fall. Gosling and Rice have a very easy, natural comic rhythm that’s totally different from what Gosling’s got going on with Crowe, and Crowe and Rice bond over their shared exasperation with Gosling in a way that is really charming. All three actors are terrific, but they’re made more terrific by virtue of how they support one another in their scenes. It is, very simply, a delight watching this all unfold, no matter how it plays out, because of the way these three pinball off one another.
Part of what I find so delightful is Crowe, who has never really done anything like it. I was a fan of Crowe’s as soon as I saw Romper Stomper, which I still think is a good film with a very good performance and one absolutely insane set piece. Hollywood has always had a strange relationship with Crowe, never consistently sure about what to do with him. When he finds a role that fits perfectly, he’s one of my favorite guys in movies, and he is positively giddy here as he watches Gosling build his character and make his choices. Gosling incorporates all sorts of things into his comedy performance here, and what makes it really impressive is the way he manages to keep his character grounded in a very real grief while making him hilarious. When he riffs off an old Lou Costello routine or he manages some bit of genuinely elegant physical comedy, Gosling makes it all look like it’s happening spontaneously. That’s crazy, because it’s an incredibly technical performance. With Crowe, it’s almost the opposite. He’s carrying more weight here than we normally see, and he sort of lurches through the movie, fists first.
What Black loves most about these stories is the way they twist and turn and he embraces that convoluted structure. There’s always a moment where everything snaps into focus, and I think the mystery here carries more thematic heft than the mystery in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. While this isn’t Chinatown, it does end up focusing on a particular turning point in LA’s history and how the various forces involved all fought change at a moment where it was 100% required. It’s a canny way of slipping in a bit of cultural history in the middle of some remarkably filthy dialogue and non-stop body parts and bloody mayhem. I’ve seen a few reviews now where people have taken some of the misanthropy to heart, but that’s part of what makes me laugh so hard. Terrible things happen in this movie, and there are some near-misses, and there is some criminally negligent parenting, and yet I like these guys, and that’s sort of the miracle of what Shane Black does. Holland and Holly make an interesting reflection of the father-daughter dynamic in in The Last Boy Scout, with about 1000% less hostility, and I love that Black never writes kids as incapable or inferior. They are human beings with their own complicated inner lives, and they are frequently disappointed by the adults in their lives, as they should be. Black writes deeply imperfect people, and that’s what I love about them. We’re not meant to want to be these guys, but we can like them in spite of their flaws. When the case finally snaps into focus, no one is more surprised than Holland, who is a good detective even if he’s not sure he is. While the script, co-written by Anthony Bagarozzi, is shaggier than Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it does pull things together in the end.
The period work is effective without being overwhelming, and I loved keeping an eye out for the period-appropriate movie billboards. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography is lush and completely focused on selling every gag, on making sure he gives Crowe and Gosling room to react to one another. David Buckley and John Ottman’s music is both period appropriate and full of attitude, and the songs picked are all expertly deployed. It is an easy sit, a big fat slice of smart entertainment. Constantly funny, startlingly violent, and oddly heartfelt, The Nice Guys is a grown-up delight, a perfect antidote to the nonstop barrage of effects spectacle that normally marks the summer movie season.
The Nice Guys is in theaters tonight.