The Comical Pandemonium of The Nice Guys
Expect the unexpected in The Nice Guys, a crime tale that leaves the screwball comedy bruised and bloody with a retro reinvention of sorts. It’s a film where characters jump over walls expecting a soft landing but a steep drop waits on the other side; an attempt to punch a window results in a trip to the emergency department; and those on the edge of death expect to see angels but Richard Nixon appears instead. Co-writer and director, Shane Black, and co-writer, Anthony Bagarozzi, let chaos rule to full comedic effect but a stalemate occurs with a pedestrian story, so, the unexpected reverts to the expected … damn.
In Los Angeles, 1977, a freelance enforcer, Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), and a private detective, Holland March (Ryan Gosling), team up to track down a missing girl (Margaret Qualley) who is linked to the death of porn star (Murielle Telio).
The Nice Guys delights in jack-in-the-box scenarios where the ordinary becomes outrageous in a flash. In the opening scene, a car tears through a house interrupting a kid’s celebration of stealing a nudie magazine from his father’s stash. The kid then discovers the same woman from the centrefold is lying naked in his backyard in a softcore pose—The Nice Guys looks like the cinematography was done by Hugh Hefner but that credit goes to Philippe Rousselot helping to enhance Black’s male gaze. The 70s let Black to get loose with the material so there’s a hedonist vibe to the smutty world these character’s navigate: the Hollywood sign is dilapidated (it’s the opening shot), people are warned to stay inside because of smog and billboards proudly promote the latest release from a porn super producer. It’s a seedy world, but there’s a cartoonish tinge, especially when it leans into slapstick, or, because it’s a Shane Black film: knuckle-buster slapstick.
The knockabout nature of The Nice Guys allows for an absurd brand of chance to rule: coincidences turn into clues; mistakes become leads and a clean break results in death. Black takes pleasure in the schadenfreude of his characters by intensifying Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Nice Guys ensures each reaction is boisterous enough for the whole thing to feel unhinged enough to crack along on these merits.
The pairing of Crowe and Gosling is brilliant enough to birth a new age of buddy flicks with their names shadowing film titles on movie posters. Crowe is wise, a little world weary, and steadfast like a brick wall as the straight man while Gosling is the sad clown, he even has ‘you will never be happy’ written on his hand; a reminder of his discontent despite his best attempt at the case. Where has this Ryan Gosling been hiding? Looking at his filmography, he seems to flick between drama (Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines) and romance (Crazy, Stupid, Love a The Notebook) in cycles—proving his talent time and time again—but The Nice Guys lets him loose to show off serious skills as a comedic performer. Angourie Rice playing March’s teenage daughter, Holly—the film’s real sleuth—rounds out the leads well as a surprisingly progressive female presence in a setting where women are constantly exploited. Black has always scripted children with no filter, they tell the truth in his films going all the way back to Monster Squad through to Iron Man Three, but Holly and the bulk of the children in The Nice Guys (most of them playing informants) are representative of the generation growing up in the age of Presidents Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, the distrust for adults is huge so they navigate a shady world with ease and work perfectly as allies.
For all the unpredictable pizzazz of The Nice Guys it brakes hard on conspiratorial elements with ‘America’ underlined several times. Each plot reveal introduces new characters that might as well be wearing t-shirts saying ‘bad to the bone’, and there’s hope it won’t go that way, but it does. The mistrust is a given, it’s the 70s, but the outcome unbalances the bedlam. Rejoice in the spoils of the comical pandemonium of The Nice Guys, it’s off kilter elements edge it out for a little until it’s reigned in.
Poster via Lakeshore Records.