The Nice Guys, writer/director Shane Black’s first movie since Iron Man 3, is a throwback to his 2005 movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which featured a pre-career resurgence Robert Downey Jr, and Val Kilmer’s arguably last “big” role as a thief and a private eye respectively, thrown together by circumstances to ultimately investigate a criminal case. Flash forward 10 years and now it’s Russell Crowe, enforcer-with-a-heart (kind of like Wade Wilson before he became Deadpool), teaming up with the private eye, played by Ryan Gosling. Black is a sharp writer, but the biggest hits of his career, Iron Man notwithstanding, are buddy movies – he also created Lethal Weapon, and Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans had the same dynamic in 1991’s The Last Boy Scout.
I’ve read a number of Black’s screenplays, and they zip along with a lot of pizzazz and clever writing. It’s not a style that can be successfully aped, but they read really well. It’s kind of disappointing for me that when it comes to his actual stories, the content feels mostly tired and repetitive – he’s a much better director than he is writer, I feel. I’ve been at the point, for a while now, where I’m just tired of the buddy comedy. You get two disparately different characters who either join forces due to organic story points, or by circumstances either boring or contrived, then you get to see them bicker, and as the movie continues, the mutual dislike they have for each other becomes replaced by a grudging respect for their own unique abilities until they’re mostly friendly at the end. It’s one of those recycled plots that nobody really cares about so long as the story’s reasonably interesting and the actors fit the parts, and if a writer can knock one of those out and be successful with it, that’s great – quite why Black feels the need to recycle this himself, multiple times in his own career is mystifying, consider that he is a good writer.
The Nice Guys deviates from the aforementioned formula not at all, but I’d hoped to come away from the movie with at least a sense of having watched a good story where the tropes of the subgenre could be buried deeply enough that I wouldn’t care – unfortunately, the story is pretty thin, and the supporting characters are weak. Thin as it is, the story is way overplotted, and at the end of the movie about the only thing I actually did feel was a strong sense of disappointment. All that because of that? It reminded me of the hugely disappointing second season of HBO’s True Detective, where the archplot’s driving objective was that the bad guys could buy land on which to build a light rail system. It’s a really odd choice of story for Black, given that he plots it as if it was Chinatown, with multiple instances where the characters themselves explain the gravity of all of it, and the hint at a deep conspiracy about clean air and all that. The main problem here is that none of this actually means anything to either of the heroes, Holland March (Gosling) or Jackson Healy (Crowe). The events of the movie, the investigation, it’s just a job for them, and the larger conspiracy they uncover is too abstract for either of them to become personally invested in. In fact, the most important detective work in the story has already been done, by the producer and stars of an “experimental” porn movie. It’s definitely unfair to compare The Nice Guys to Chinatown, but detective fiction on the whole works better when the main plot has a greater personal meaning for the detective, and that isn’t tied to dramatic plots, it’s simply the function of connecting plot to character. In The Nice Guys, Gosling and Crowe don’t exactly drift along aimlessly, but many times I felt they were in the right place at the right time so the story felt pretty contrived.
I mentioned that the supporting characters are weak, and they are – the exception being March’s daughter Holly, played exceptionally well by Angourie Rice. The adult precociousness that Black imbues her with would come off as contrived too, but there are a number of scenes that Black cleverly shows her behaving old for her age in down moments, where other writers might just have to have show her active in every scene. As an example of this, I’ll mention the scene where she sneaks into an adult party in the Hollywood Hills and ends up watching a porn movie with one of its lead actresses. All Black calls upon her to do is talk person to person, and for me that worked beautifully, and in a couple of scenes (redemptive for the March character), Black allows the audience to see why she’s this smart: it’s in the DNA.
The comedy made me laugh out loud a number of times – some parts are genuinely funny, but in a slapstick kind of way. Gosling shows an unexpected flair for physical comedy, and he mostly is allowed to get the laughs, while Crowe plays the straight man during the movie. There’s one point which was too much for me, and that’s when March discovers himself sitting next to a corpse – his reaction is pretty much Lou Costello, and since I’m old enough to remember that (not a fan), it was a real eye-rolling moment for me, and reinforced the writing throughout of March as just a comic foil and not much else.
As formulaic as the movie is in terms of the buddy-comedy, and as inconsequential as the plot is, I can honestly say I did enjoy most of this movie. The clichéd mutual respect March and Healy that grows between them in Act 2 feels naturalistic and both actors have great chemistry together. In one of the final scenes there’s a too on-the-nose foreshadowing of a sequel that I’d probably watch, but don’t have a ton of excitement for. Once around the block with these guys was a decent trip, but there’s no need for another.