Marrying the hard boiled flavour of the pulpiest film noir with some of the goofiest and most violent slapstick ever committed to celluloid, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is the bad taste comedy of my dreams. Shocking bloodlust has really never been this funny – imagine a strange mashup of L.A Confidential and Itchy and Scratchy and you are halfway towards the offbeat brilliance here. But the real power in the movie is how, underneath the shocking laughs that fly faster and more frequent than any other recent comedy, Black makes you emotionally invested in the characters, without ever redeeming them. It goes without saying that the title is ironic; these are the two biggest cinematic assholes in recent memory and boy, is the film all the better for it.
In 1977 Los Angeles, famed porn star Misty Mountains dies in a freak car crash. Tangentially related to this inexplicable death is the case of a missing girl called Amelia (Margaret Qualley), the search for whom is the next case by bumbling private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling). Of course, it isn’t that simple – Amelia doesn’t want to be found, hiring enforcer Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe) to beat up March in order for him to back off. Instead of closing the book on that case, the pair find themselves drawn into a bizarre underworld conspiracy theory. Reluctantly teaming up, they soon find themselves falling down a black hole of red herrings, from porn actresses to environmental protestors and stripper mermaids.
A lesser screenwriter than Shane Black would strive to make their central anti heroes complete their narrative arc as redeemed heroes, learning from their frequent incompetent mistakes. The Nice Guys feels strange for a Hollywood movie due to never letting them overcome their all-encompassing idiocy; they are as bad at detective work at the climax as they are when the movie began. This is all thanks to the incredibly winning double act from Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, the most unlikely comedy duo to emerge in recent memory.
Their performances are among their career best – for Gosling, it is a mighty return to form after a career slump following Only God Forgives. His best career choices are ones that subvert expectations of him as a dashingly handsome leading man. He’s directly played against the romantic ideal persona of The Notebook with his despairing performance in Blue Valentine, whilst he memorably played against his sex symbol status with the aforementioned Only God Forgives, an underrated movie dripping with subtext about impotency fuelling male rage and damaged ego.
In a solid return to mainstream ground, Gosling goes as far as it is possible to go in order to tarnish audience preconceptions; he is a useless crybaby, who frequently takes money from elderly people for detective cases he never solves. His 13 year old daughter, a star making performance from newcomer Angourie Rice, frequently reminds him he is a bad person and manages to solve each case better than he ever could. If he portrayed one side of the damaged male ego in Only God Forgives, then this is definitely the other side of the coin.
Blown up to cosmic comic proportions, every second Gosling is on screen he projects an utterly pathetic shell of a man – a bumbling idiot that is the perfect vessel for the actor to give the best slapstick performance of the decade. Russell Crowe portrays the “straight man” of the comic duo, but his status as an absurdly amoral asshole (he is introduced hounding a teenage girl for being $7 short of his fee for beating up child molesters) ensures he gets to develop comic skills his other projects never let him near.
Within his first few minutes on screen, when he delivers one of the best “spit-takes’ in recent memory, I knew this would be a revelatory performance. Sure, he is partially responsible for the emotional grounding that transcends this above being a mere buddy comedy, but this film proves he is one hell of a funny guy. Gosling threatens to overshadow everybody when he’s onscreen – it is tantamount to Black’s direction that Crowe’s comparatively understated turn shines equally.
Unlike Black’s previous buddy cop movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which revelled in the impenetrable nature of film noir narratives, The Nice Guys is incredibly easy to understand – without ever being remotely predictable. Strip away the jokes that are the backbone of this terrific movie and you would still be left with one of the most solid crime thrillers in recent memory. It is undeniably sleazy and stretches believability to breaking point. But it sure as hell never comes close to being boring.