The Nice Guys may not be the best buddy movie you’ve ever seen, and certainly not even the best Shane Black movie he’s ever done. But that’s like saying that vanilla ice cream isn’t good just because it’s not chocolate. In these days where all Hollywood thinks about is minting money from carefully assembled franchise factories with as little surprise and as much in-built recognition factor as possible, we should embrace every little spiky non-Cinematic-Universe movie that hugs you like a long lost relative you only see at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs; that eccentric but cool cousin you’re never really sure you want to see but whose company you still end up thoroughly enjoying every now and then.
Really, is there still anyone out there who does not wish his every entertainment to be full of spandex, CGI and super-powers? But, for that matter, is there still anyone out there who actually yearns for a proper self-deprecating comedy-slash-procedural, other than battle-scarred movie critics stuck between the devil of big-budget-super-hero-spectaculars and the deep blue sea of hardcore-paint-drying-auteurism? The dismal US box-office results for The Nice Guys seem to answer that question with a big in-your-face NO.
But I, for one, am pretty happy that Mr. Black went ahead and roped in Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling to star in his all-over-the-place crime comedy, only to let Australian 15-year-old pipsqueak Angourie Rice steal the film blind from under their feet. Ms Rice plays Holly, the preternaturally grown-up daughter of widowed alcoholic PI Holland March (Mr Gosling), who milks his wealthy, aged and generally much befuddled L. A. clients in order to make rent. And it’s Holly that keeps it together and on point when Dad and goon-for hire Jack Healy (Mr Crowe) join forces to find out why is the college activist Amelia (Margaret Qualley) being chased by very unsavory characters.
Amelia is the macguffin that leads the hapless duo into the film’s hardboiled/neo-noir mechanics, Holly is the engine that keeps it running while Messrs Crowe and Gosling have at it like brothers from another mother who’ve only just met. Anthony Bagarozzi and Mr Black’s script is a preposterously convoluted combination of hardboiled homage and cop show send-up, starting off in the Philip Marlowe mode of world-weary cynicism that veers slowly into mystified laidback bemusement. This is probably why a lot of people are evoking Paul Thomas Anderson’s deconstruction of the detective novel in the marvelous Inherent Vice as what Mr Black is aiming at here.
While I allow that they’re somewhat kindred spirits, especially in the seventies background and general coolness, The Nice Guys isn’t really aiming at 1970s “new Hollywood” irony. Despite its setting, what it really is going for is the 1980s buddy movie where Mr Black cut his teeth scripting Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, but coming at it more from the angle of Walter Hill’s epochal 48 Hrs. or Peter Hyams’ seriously underrated Running Scared: easy going entertainment that didn't necessarily take you for granted.
Now, let’s be very honest: none of this makes The Nice Guys a great film. It isn’t a great film by any stretch, and it’s not even as good as Mr Black’s directing debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Overlong by at least 20 minutes, over-busy, over-plotted and halting in its stop-start rhythms that seem to pause for yet another Gosling/Crowe (admittedly generally very funny) comedic set piece, the film can be too throwaway for its own good — as if the director wasn’t taking it seriously enough, though the plot’s Chinatown-ish connection between political lobbying and pornography suggests the its exact opposite. Also, the seventies setting can occasionally become too much of a crutch — like if wah-wah funk guitars, bell-bottoms and gas shortages were shorthand for what Mr Black is trying to evoke.
But the truth also is that the tale being told doesn’t really belong in the always-on 21st century; it’s pre-cellphone, pre-internet, pre-soccer-mom-minivan, pure mythical L. A. sunshine noir forced into a tanning salon on waking up from a nasty, stomach-churning hangover. The problem with that isn’t as much Mr Black’s or even the film’s as is the landscape it’s coming out on: The Nice Guys assumes a smart audience that can relate to the film’s references and identify them correctly, but does anyone even remember what a noir is after the genre has all but been waylaid by the studios and forgotten by the casual moviegoer? When police procedurals, detective dramas and crime stories have been left to small screen franchises like NCIS or Law and Order or to the cheap, pre-sold direct-to-VOD-bypassing-theatrical packages that make the most of Nicolas Cage, Morgan Freeman or Bruce Willis’ current paychecks?
It’s easy to lose an audience and very hard to build it back up after you let it go. And something like The Nice Guys, with its quasi-celebratory nostalgia for a pre-digital model of genre film (beautifully photographed by the great Philippe Rousselot), seems a quaint, almost quixotic attempt to get it back. Its sly slapstick humour and narrative playfulness within the genre constraints are probably best suited these days to the quieter, more casual pleasures of home viewing than to the bottom-line pressure of weekend box-office — and I have no doubt that this could become quite big once it hits the so-called “ancillary” markets (television, VOD, streaming, download).
But it’s in the big screen that The Nice Guys, for all its shortcomings, really belongs — its unabashed celebration of celluloid as an eye-opener and world-changer, in what is the film’s single most inspired plot point, makes it something to savour in the big screen, where it rightly belongs.
THE NICE GUYS
US, GB, 2016, 116 min; CAST Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya da Costa, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Lois Smith, Kim Basinger; DIR Shane Black; SCR Mr Black and Anthony Bagarozzi; DP Philippe Rousselot (widescreen); MUS John Ottman and David Buckley; PROD DES Richard Bridgland; COST Kym Barrett; ED Joel Negron; PROD Joel Silver; Silver Pictures, Waypoint Entertainment and Bloom Media in association with Lipsync