Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) in The Nice Guys (Daniel McFadden/Warner Bros. Pictures)
The decadent Los Angeles of the ’70s may be the setting for The Nice Guys, but the era that the film most draws from is the one that followed, the ’80s. The movie is, after all, a creation of action producer Joel Silver, the producer behind such ’80s action hits like 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon, and Shane Black, the writer of the Lethal Weapon series who both wrote and directed this film. This is the type of film that used to dominate theaters during the ’80s and into the ’90s as surely as superhero movies do today, and makes a refreshing throwback to a genre whose time of dominating theaters has passed.
Like those ’80s action films, The Nice Guys pairs a gruff veteran with a younger motormouth, but instead of the racially contrasting pairs that once seemed a requirement of the genre, this film stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as two competing detectives who team up to find the truth behind a missing girl that involves such disparate elements as the L.A. porn industry and the then-topical concerns over air pollution. Regular smog warnings may be a thing of the past, but they were once so integral to living in Southern California that it’s surprising that it so rarely factors into stories from that era.
In further contrast to the ’80s buddy action-comedies that inspired The Nice Guys, neither stars of the film are particularly known for comedy. Gosling has his occasional forays into the genre such as The Big Short and Crazy Stupid Love, but both of those traded on him being a suave charmer, not the goofball that he is here. Crowe seems even less suited for the genre, even though he has the Danny Glover or Nick Nolte role that requires less slapstick. The persona Crowe has developed since breaking through with American audiences in L.A. Confidential has been an unfailing serious one. He plays cops, gladiators and boxers; not only does Crowe never crack a joke, he barely seems capable of cracking a smile. Fortunately, both actors do an admirable job stretching away from their well-developed screen personas. Crowe finds a way to be warm and funny even when he’s punching people with brass knuckles, and Gosling shows a real talent for slapstick.
The storyline that is at the center of The Nice Guys often seems unnecessarily convoluted, as if it stretches to bring so many parts of ’70s L.A. culture together in order to make a surprising point, but it is less a film dependent on plot than one that succeeds on attitude. The film is relentlessly adult in its subject matter, even when it requires Gosling and Crowe to do pratfalls and double takes. What makes the material seem even more shocking is that the film has essentially a third lead in Angourie Rice, who plays Gosling’s charater’s child and accompanies the duo on some of their adventures. This film has a lot of sex and violence, which so rarely shocks in films anymore, but the presence of a child in many of the scenes makes the material have a stronger impact than usual.
Much like the action comedies that inspire The Nice Guys, the film seems set up for an inevitable sequel if the film succeeds financially. The interplay between Crowe and Gosling, two actors who prove surprisingly adept at unexpected material, suggests that, at least creatively, The Nice Guys earns the right to a sequel.
The Nice Guys
Warner Bros. Pictures
In theaters May 20
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