“The Nice Guys” is a breath of fresh air. At a time when the American film industry is becoming increasingly bifurcated into big budget popcorn films on one end and tiny, independent films that might not see the light outside of VOD, “The Nice Guys” fits into that quickly-being-forgotten sweet spot of a mid-budget film that coasts on the stars’ charisma, the director’s style, and the snapping dialogue of the screenplay. Fun movies with some artistry, like this one, are getting lost more and more. I, for one, am glad that at least THIS ONE saw the light of day.
Mixing elements of the buddy comedy and neo-noir mystery, “The Nice Guys” tells the story of how a lazy, alcoholic-but-skilled PI (Ryan Gosling) and a muscle for hire (Russell Crowe) end up joining forces to find a missing girl (Margaret Qualley). The worlds of 70s porn and the Detroit auto industry, as well as hit men and government conspiracies, also get rapped up in this mix. Oh, and we can’t forget about the smartest and most likeable person in the movie: Gosling’s 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice), who serves as the film’s conscience and moral compass, as well as being a very clever girl who is clearly tied to her father and also above him.
The year is 1977, but “The Nice Guys” isn’t so much a period piece as it is a film that evokes motifs related to the 70s and cribs the decade’s iconography for both humor and style. Since the film itself is kind of a throwback to 70s neo-noirs like “Chinatown”, as well as the buddy cop comedies of the 80s like “Lethal Weapon” (which was written by this film’s co-writer/director Shane Black), it makes sense for the film to also crib style and flash as well as story elements from previous eras. Hell, the very existence of a star-driven, mid-budgeted adult-aimed movie being released in theaters IN THE SUMMER is itself a throwback. The film feels like it was made during the 70s nostalgia period in the 90s and early 2000s when Hollywood wasn’t in such a creative funk for serious (but still comedic) affairs. If “The Nice Guys” is being received so warmly by myself and others, it’s as much a testament to the film itself as it is to our frustration with the direction the American movie industry is taking lately.
- A porn star dies in an apparent car accident. The daughter of a justice department official goes missing. Hit men tied to both the porn star and the daughter are trying to find the daughter. Our heroes are trying to find the daughter. The big mystery is why everyone wants to find this girl, and what all of the elements have to do with one another. The mystery is interesting enough to keep us interested, there’s a (tiny) but of political commentary involved (economics and the environment were issues as pressing in the 70s as they are today), but what really keeps this train running are Gosling and Crowe. They both dive headfirst into these characters and, more importantly, their chemistry together pops in an electrifying what that makes you wonder why no one else thought to team up these two before. While I’m a big fan of Gosling being serious (“Drive” and “The Place Beyond the Pines”), he has a real talent for comedy, and for playing likeable schmucks. Crowe, who perhaps has been hampered by playing characters too serious at times, seems to relish in playing a character who acts as both comedian and as straight man, while also being s character of empathy.
We also get some fine supporting work. Rice, as Holly, plays the smart kid sidekick that Shane Black seems to like tying to damaged adults (remember the second act of Black’s “Iron Man 3”), and her character is instantly likeable, and Rice is far better than your average child actress. Not since Chloe Moretz burst on to the scene in “Kick-Ass” can I remember a child actress who so forcefully held her own with established stars. We also get Kim Basinger in a small role, Matt Bomer as a really chilly and frightening hit man, Beau Knapp as a comically inexperienced hit man, and Lois Smith as an old woman with the thickest glasses you’ve ever seen.
“The Nice Guys” is consistently very funny. It also has some decent action sequences, interesting action movie violence where, in one scene involving a hotel, our main characters are merely witnesses, and some quieter character moments that reveal that the title of “The Nice Guys” points to what this film is asking us. Are people who do bad things, but whose hearts are in the right place and don’t do anything severely reckless, bad people or nice guys? The film seems to argue that no guy is truly nice (though some girls can be) but that good intentions and a kind heart can make up for an unavoidable asshole-ness and understandable stupidity in all men.
I laughed a lot during the film. I enjoyed the 70s setting and story elements. The mystery is intriguing enough. The politics are subtle (kind of) but still there. The leads have great chemistry. The action works without being at odds to the comedic tone. “The Nice Guys” is about as good of a film as it could possibly be. If I didn’t like it more, it’s because the film isn’t trying to be art, but instead be the highest levels of pure entertainment it can be. At that level, it succeeds with flying colors. B+