Directed by Shane Black | Written by Black and Anthony Bagarozzi | 116 min | ▲▲▲▲△
Shane Black is the master of buddy action comedy, having written Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, not to mention his superhero success Iron Man 3. The Nice Guys lands right in his sweet spot—boys unleash R-rated banter with intermittent bone-crushing violence and gunfire. That the picture’s wonderful production design totally convinces as period (1977) means you’ll notice something entertainingly gaudy, orange, and brown in almost every corner of the frame.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a rumpled Los Angeles private eye who, back in the ’70s, people would’ve called a drunk. He climbs in the bottle to get over the death of his wife while still trying to be a father to his mature 13-year-old, Holly (Angourie Rice), scamming clients to make ends meet. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a local tough guy, someone who makes a living hurting people. March has been paid to find a woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who may be an actor in a porn movie, or just look like one. Healy has been paid by Amelia to get March off her case. As it happens, Amelia is also being sought by killers—who may or may not be in the employ of her mother (Kim Basinger)—all because Amelia’s film has a message about Detroit’s efforts to avoid catalytic converters.
Or something like that. The plot doesn’t really add up. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter since we’re distracted and amused by the frequently sleazy world going on in the background; Sunset Boulevard in its ’70s heyday, gloriously vulgar parties in the Hills, cars the size of boats. The Nice Guys is an Inherent Vice that makes sense, or a tongue-in-cheek reimagining of The Long Goodbye. Black relishes his chance to delve into the non-PC world of the late-’70s LA, one both strangely innocent and totally hedonistic. This is a world where words like “retarded” and “marriage” are flung around as playful punchlines, for better or worse.
Gosling delivers his character with effortless grace in his garish blazers and bad hair. He pretty much blows Crowe off the screen. Crowe’s lived-in ease is appealing, but he’s neither threatening nor charming enough to match Gosling’s goofy charisma. As Holly, Rice is terrific, navigating this adult world with confidence beyond her years, trying to keep her father and his hardass pal on the straight and narrow. They’ll be lucky to come out in one piece at the end of this escapade, but either way she’s the real winner.