Overview: A down-and-out alcoholic private eye and a bitterly-divorced hired enforcer team up to find a missing young woman. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2016; Rated R; 116 Minutes.
The Architect’s Tour: “There’s something wrong with kids today.” These are the first words we hear from Jackson Healy in The Nice Guys. The line is provided in a voiceover by Russell Crowe, who plays the gruff and Brooklyn-born bully-for-hire. It might be easy to perceive this line as a gifted editorial opportunity for the aging rough-and-tumble actor who, in spite of having major success starring in multiple Oscar-winning films of the 2000s, always felt like a late arrival. With his chesty swagger and old school roughness, Crowe would have been a perfect match for the everyman-turned-begrudging hero action films of the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Some might also think the opening sentiment represents the voice of the film or its maker, an assumption for which superficial evidence certainly exists. The film’s setting is 1977 Los Angeles, its soundtrack and costume design built of quintessential hits of that era, and it freely makes continual references to the The Waltons, perhaps the one TV show that best represents naively ideal conceptions of the past as “a better time.” When, in one of the film’s funniest scenes, Healy’s reluctant and unwanted partner Holland March (Ryan Gosling) shouts “Do you even know what you’re prostesting?!” at young protesters pretending to be dead atop public steps, it sounds a little bit like an author taking shots at the mindless outrage culture of contemporary teens and 20-somethings.
And the narrative structure of the film represents an only slightly customized version of the antique buddy cop vehicle that Co-Writer/Director Shane Black helped fine-tune in his early work on The Lethal Weapon films and The Last Boy Scout. When it’s running on all cylinders, The Nice Guys feels like a story told by a teller familiar with a tested formula. It’s kind of like getting a tour of an abandoned theme park provided by the visionary architect who helped build it from the ground up decades prior. The rides here might not be as flashy as the ones at more modernized parks, but man, does this guy know how to make these old things move.
The Carnie’s Best Trick: But after spending two acts with the two main characters, a different interpretation of the film’s generational attitude almost unknowingly slips into place heading into the third. Both Jackson and Holland are men held prisoner by their pasts. Every punch from Jackson is weighted with shame and anger, a miscommunication of all the things he’ll likely never say to his unfaithful ex-wife. More than once, he steers conversations way off course to take a shot at ideas of romance. And Gosling uses his mathematic, musican-like silence and timing to great effect. We’ve seen the still-young actor employ silence to establish menace in his work with Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) and we have seen him serve as the rhythm-keeper in the best banter sequences in films like The Big Short and Crazy, Stupid Love. In The Nice Guys, we see a new speed. Gosling delivers his one-liners like a frightened bullet, starting his sometimes-senseless retorts before his costars can finish their scripted lines. This establishes two things: 1.) a sharper comedic edge and 2.) a character who lives in a defensive state, likely because he spends so much energy accusing himself of being responsible for his wife’s death. Both men are stuck in the quicksand of the past, captives to their own inability to move forward and evolve.
By the time the conflict is resolved, we know that the silly protesters were actually right about their cause and the central mystery would never have been solved without the cunning inventiveness of Holland’s 13-year old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), in all measures the movie’s best detective. Holly also, ultimately, provides the standard terms by which both her father and his new friend might find personal redemption and narrative salvation. When the mix of hilarity and hyper-violence is all said and done, the film moves to credits with Holland and Jackson making predictions about Detroit’s ever-strong auto-industry and the near-term inevitability of electric cars, Black’s way of winking at the audience as an assurance that people who speak too amorously for the past and too hopeful of the future never really know what they’re talking about. The whole thing is an exercise in measuring the value of generational snobbery, both in standard terms and cinematic, a figurative thumbing of the useless nose at any notion that this or any current generation is made of worse people or making lesser films.
Overall: The Nice Guys may be built from an old formula wearing a nostalgic aesthetic and yeah, maybe it’s spiked with the almost-forgotten gumshoe wit and deep character-building nuance like a Raymond Chandler tale observed through drunk double vision. But it also moves with the assured recklessness of the best Guy Ritchie films and pulls off some tricks that probably wouldn’t work in any decade but this one. (Imagine Danny Glover dreaming of a giant bee in the backseat or Bruce Willis having a pool-submerged vision of Richard Nixon.) “They don’t make’em like they used to,” you might expect the film to say before realizing that… yeah, they do. At least Shane Black does, and in some ways, he makes them even better.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures