Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling make a fun double-act in Shane Black’s brash, entertaining and moderately amusing crime comedy. The Nice Guys is one of those films whose trailer promises much, but which ultimately disappoints; the best thing about it is newcomer Angourie Rice’s performance as Gosling’s daughter.
The Nice Guys is set in 1977 Los Angeles in a sleazy smog of porno films and lavish pool parties. It looks authentically Super 8 Seventies bright, with saturated colours and disco glitziness. But this attention to detail doesn’t extend to the music and films advertised on billboards: Earth, Wind and Fire might have played September the year before it was released as a single, but Jaws 2 came out in 1978 and Pennie Smith took the iconic Clash photo seen on Rice’s bedroom wall in 1979.
Call me pedantic, but these things matter to us oldies who grew up in the Seventies. This ‘loose’ approach extends to the dialogue, which is occasionally sharp and funny, but often resorts to those old favourites, Hitler and gay-ness, for laughs. But I enjoyed the misunderstood word gags, such as Munich/eunuch and the odd couple’s general ineptitude. They might bungle and pratfall their way around LA, and Crowe’s waistline might be expanding, but they’re sure no Laurel & Hardy.
The Nice Guys opens when single father and licensed Private Investigator Holland March (Gosling) is hired to investigate the apparent suicide of famous porn star Misty Mountains. As the trail leads him to track down a girl named Amelia, he encounters burly private eye Jackson Healey (Crowe) and his knuckle-dusters. It soon becomes apparent that more dangerous parties are also very interested in Amelia and both men are forced to team up to take on a world filled with sadistic goons, strippers dressed as mermaids and porn-obsessed kids.
Gosling channels My Name is Earl’s Jason Lee’s dumb moustachio-ed charm. Crowe just likes beating people up. These two loveable eejits are saved from themselves by March’s 13 year-old daughter Holly (Rice), who becomes the smartest member of the team. Rice looks like Cloe Grace Moretz, but uses her wits to overcome obstacles, rather than Kickass violence. A book-reading teen with Sex Pistols and Blondie posters on her bedroom wall, Holly is brave, sassy and unaffected; she is the film’s human core and without her The Nice Guys would be a macho bore.
Amidst the chain-smoking, booze-swilling wreckage of his life, March worries about his daughter growing up in the sleazy, immoral world of L.A, where life is cheap and girls are sex-objects. Writer-director Black doesn’t push this ‘enlightened’ angle, but he gives his male odd-couple more masculine complexity than, say, ‘Mad’ Mel Gibson and ‘Family man’ Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, whose script Black wrote at the age of 23.
Healy believes in solving problems with his fists, but only because he knows no other way. He concludes a story about beating up a man threatening to rob a diner by confessing, ‘it was the best day of my life, because I felt useful.’
March, meanwhile, tries to be a good dad, correcting Holly’s use of the unnecessary “and stuff” at the end of her sentences.