Everyone loves a buddy cop film—this isn’t so much a matter of opinion as it is science. The traditions of unlikely duos, out-of-this-world set-ups, and more than a few nincompoopy villains make buddy comedies perfect for welcoming the warmer months with a bit of fun. These films provide our brains with the sort of laughter release for which summers were made. Sprinkle that formula with a bit of Shane Black magic, peppered by the presence of the likes of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, tied with a ’70s technicolor dream ribbon? Well now you’ve got yourselves The Nice Guys, and that’s a whole ‘nother beast entirely: one that takes you on a freewheeling chase through Los Angeles in the ’70s, pavement slick with conspiracy and danger.
Here’s the basic premise: Jackson Healy (Crowe) is a muscle-for-hire who reluctantly joins forces with the charismatically hapless and bumblingly inept private eye Holland March (Gosling) as they investigate a conspiracy involving a porn star, the DA’s office, a missing daughter, and a film with an important message. What comes next is the sort of nonstop barrage of slapstick, tomfoolery, and earnest heroing that takes the popcorn set to the next level. Go ahead, allow yourself the extra butter. Gosling and Crowe together are worth the extra calories.
It would be easy for a film as hijinks-y as this one to rest on the laurels of its slick, 1977 backdrop, winsome leading men, and absurdist construct. Instead, The Nice Guys uses these as the sheen that wraps the whole of the film together. It’s trashy, but self-aware and purposeful in that way: the film works because it swerves and slips and slides around itself with a sort of thrilling abandon. It’s visceral and light in unexpected ways, trope-y and audacious in others. It’s a balance of light and dark that jitters across the screen, drawing your interest in and refusing to let go.
And hovering just below the surface? A genuine heart and earnestness to the conspiracy behind the elusive Amelia (Margaret Qualley) and her experimental “message” film. And be it in the comedic moments or even the more thrilling/dramatic bits, the earnestness with which Black has written these characters and the scenarios is the key to this film’s success. This is played to especially great effect by Qualley and March’s daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). As far as standout duos go, the double-act of Rice and Gosling—hapless and charming and genuinely bad at parenting—is just as vital to the story as Gosling and Crowe’s. Holly is the Penny to his Inspector Gadget, putting together people and moments that ultimately lead March and Healy to the answer. She’s the true hero of all their ne’er-do-welling.
In the smaller moments where March attempts to father his daughter—much to her chagrin—there’s a love and respect (and a need for grammatical correctness) between the two that makes Holly an equal with her two male costars. Heck, in a scene where she must battle a de-banged assassin named John Boy (yes, like The Waltons, played perfectly by Matt Bomer), she more than holds her own as a tough cookie baked in her father’s own inabilities. In Holly we find the “Really?” eye roll with which most of March and Healy’s decisions should be met, further strengthening the humor that is such an unlikely trio. In one scene at a very fancy pornstar party, where March and Healy are almost instantly distracted by the goings on (and casual dead body dump), Holly pieces together several parts of the puzzle without missing a beat and manages to save a life in the process. Meanwhile? Her dad gets wasted, goes swimming with mermaids, and stumbles down a hill (he stumbles a lot, this one). Their inability, while hilarious on its own, is made all the more humorous in contrast with her boss-ness.
It’s, really, what makes most of what Shane Black does so good: he’s self-aware enough to get the joke, but doesn’t handhold the audience through it. You appreciate every wink and nod, the vast majority of which are done really well. He walks the very, very fine line between gratuitous and purposefully audacious and, in this reviewer’s opinion, accomplishes the walk well. There’s even a surprising amount of nuance to some of the more slapstick and/or meta joke-y moments that Black has really come to perfect, thanks to his continued evolution in excellent work on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3. The Nice Guys plays like a conspiracy thriller that’s rolled around in a bunch of sticky mystery, picking up meta-humor along the way. The irreverent self-awareness with which the film plays within its own sensibilities allows plenty of room for Gosling and Crowe to truly embody these characters’ inabilities (and attempts at the opposite), ensuring the grumpy Healy and Gumby-esque March manage the impossible.
If one thing is true about The Nice Guys, it’s that we’re sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of these two in future installments of hijinkery. It’s like Lethal Weapon on a bender and lost all sense of right and wrong. Which is to say, it’s exactly what it should be.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 very funky, very drunk burritos
Images: Warner Bros.