Set in a smoggy/syphilitic 1977 Los Angeles, director/screenwriter Shane Black’s comic noir caper flick revels in just how damned ugly the Me Decade was. Film has a tendency to romanticize an era or to toy cutely with a period’s quirky extremes. Black time travels without commentary. The characters in this film aren’t living in a Smithsonian exhibit. They are simply living. Or attempting to live.
Beyond the flawless set decoration and precise costume design, Black is aided and abetted by the sparks that fly when you throw the unlikeliest of co-stars together: Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Glowering gravitas meets wicked whimsy.
That said, the awkwardly delicious alchemy these two titans demonstrated on the talk show circuit promoting the film isn’t as evident onscreen as one might expect. Perhaps surprisingly, Crowe ends up garnering more laughs because he is always so. darn. grounded. He’s funny simply because he’s not trying to be. Gosling indulges cartoonish impulses a few too many times, not trusting the comedy of situational contrast to do the heavy lifting. (Gosling has yet to outgrow the “isn’t it just a riot to see a handsome adult man let loose an ear-piercing community theatre shriek when he’s scared?” tic. Be careful, Ryan, for that way rests Johnny Depp’s sputtering career.)
Regardless, Crowe and Gosling are pretty freaking adorable together, and the whole enterprise plays like a pilot episode of a vintage TV-series that never got picked up. The plot is, well, kind of a meandering mess … just like a grainy 1970s TV crime drama. I kept waiting for Jaclyn Smith or Gavin MacLeod to show up as a “very special guest star.” (We do get a Lynda Carter shout out, though.) There are double- and triple-crosses aplenty as a porn actress (literally) crashes through a family’s living room, and her death starts a spiraling series of murders and other sordid shenanigans. Oh, and there is intrigue about the auto industry and catalytic converters and how in the world Kim Basinger’s character managed to have Botox before the procedure was ever invented.
Gosling, as private eye Holland March, and Crowe, as hired muscle Jackson Healy, initially find themselves at cross purposes (with Gosling’s pretty mug on the receiving end of Crowe’s brass knuckles). Grudgingly, the duo partner up as the violence mounts and their befuddlement grows. A big part of the movie’s charm is that Crowe and Gosling gleefully portray characters whose detective skills are as suspect as their collective intelligence, with Holland’s precocious daughter Holly March (portrayed by a captivating Angourie Rice) serving as a wise-beyond-her-years Nancy Drew to Gosling/Crowe’s dim bulb Hardy Boys.
Rice’s performance is dynamite with a sharp feminist subtext. As the “grown up” characters find themselves derailed by patriarchy run amuck (porn, corrupt manufacturing, prostitution, the Oil Crisis … the 70s at its worst), Rice’s Holly is clear-eyed, vigilant, incisive, defying the limitations and stereotypes society seeks to impose. “Don’t say, ‘And stuff.’ Just say there are whores here,” Gosling intones at one point, attempting to correct his daughter’s grammar and missing the misogynist irony in his declaration. The look in Rice’s eye reveals that her character does not lose the irony.
Holly is always ten steps ahead of her father and, without Holly’s continual intervention, the titular Nice Guys would still be attempting to solve the film’s mystery well into the late 1980s. Or they’d be dead.
I’m hoping this feminist dynamic is intentional on Black’s part, a storyteller whose filmography (from Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang through Iron Man 3) typically co-opts and reinvents B-movie formula, inverting its clichés as satiric critique of our baser instincts. I suspect this is by design, the film’s random (gratuitous?) naked porn stars notwithstanding.
With The Nice Guys, Black is trying to have his cake and eat it too. And he succeeds. Mostly. In a larger sense, Black is using the indulgent myopia of the 1970s as a reflection of how little we have changed as a nation. Basinger, plays a Department of Justice operative (in a bit of meta-casting, referencing her earlier – better – work in both L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile) whose definition of “justice” is protecting the (then) fat cats in the Detroit auto industry. In the final act, she delivers the film’s punch line: “What’s good for Detroit is good for America.” Even as today’s Detroit reinvents itself as a hipster paradise of urban farming, artisanal soaps, and craft cocktails, the lesson in Basinger’s remark remains prescient. An America that lives for itself and only itself will quickly find itself trapped in yesteryear’s polyester leisure suit.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.