film reviews Russell Crowe

THE NICE GUYS Review: Scuzzy Self-Improvement is Still Scuzzy

Monday, May 23, 2016 Rob Samuelson

The Nice Guys

Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black, Anthony Bagarozzi
Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Margaret Qualley, Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

If you’re a charming person, you can get away with a lot of terrible decisions. You may even go pretty far depending on how you apply that skill. It’s a nice living if you can get it. That’s how Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) and Holland March (Ryan Gosling) get by in The Nice Guys, as a for-hire bone breaker and a drunken private detective, respectively, in a scuzzed-out 1976 version of Los Angeles. Co-writer-director Shane Black’s (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3) latest neo-noir film doesn’t let them off the hook because they’re amiable rogues. These guys may be able to live halfway comfortably by coasting, but they’re not thrilled about it and they want more. They want to be better, to do good. At the end of the film, it’s not clear whether they will overcome their faults, but they’re trying.

That attempt at self-improvement is buried deep inside a sharp-tongued picture full of terrible behavior and more than a little outlandish violence, with the occasional dream sequence thrown in for good measure. The Nice Guys means it when it attempts to get its characters to a healthier place in their lives, but it doesn’t shy away from these two ne’erdowells’ penchant for ruining everything they touch.

Healy and March’s inability to seal the properly deal with anything in their lives gives the film enough of a twist on the detective genre to be fresh. Whereas there is a long line of functioning alcoholic gumshoes solving murders and missing persons cases on the big screen, March’s alcoholism is a real problem that is pointed out to him on numerous occasions by his daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice, excellent as an unofficial third partner with perhaps the strongest investigative skills of the bunch), and his newfound and unwanted partner, Healy, as they try to find a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) with connections to the LA pornography business, the United States government, Detroit automakers, and environmental protesters -- like all noirs, it has a twisty, busy plot. March’s drunken episodes cause him to miss clues. The liquid courage inflates his ego enough to believe everything he says with a little too much conviction, like when he is positive about a certain address that will solve the case, only to find that the building had been demolished two years prior. In a series of excellent physical comedy bits by Gosling, March literally falls into the biggest breaks in the case because he is an inebriated, wobbly mess.

But at least March can lie to himself and say he helps people in his career -- so what if he commits fraud often to squeeze more money out of desperate rubes. Healy doesn’t have the same face-saving luxury. He is nothing more than a heavy, hired to bust noses or, in the case of his first meeting with March, provide a sucker punch and a “spiral fracture” in order to dissuade him from looking further into the disappearance of young Amelia. Healy is one of Russell Crowe’s finest (and most enjoyable) performances, an aging and pudgy loner whose heart isn’t in what he does. For a guy with a violent streak, he sure is rather cuddly at his core, because he is holding onto the one glory day he had a year before the events of the movie take place when he got to play the hero for once. After a quick apology to March for breaking his arm, Healy changes his tune and wants to help find the missing girl, so the two team up. Healy eases into the “surrogate uncle” role with preteen Holly in order to learn about her father, his new partner’s sad, alcoholism-inducing past.

That deft disbursement of character information is part of what makes Shane Black such a master of this type of story. His script, co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi, is a wonderfully crafted thing. Pieces fit together emotionally and mechanically. Plot elements are set up and knocked down with the same level of attention as a carefully constructed joke, something else the movie has in abundance. Sometimes things are put together a little too conveniently -- like how Gosling always stumbles into the next clue -- but the wit and yes, the charm, take the movie far.

The humor and pace of the movie suggest the term “breezy,” but that would be wrong. The Nice Guys is executed with precision, even if its characters are some of the most imprecise professionals to ever grace the screen. While it takes minor wrong turns, like an attempt at a running joke involving the useless phrase “and stuff” that loses its comedic power after its first use, it makes up for them in major ways. At one point around the film’s midpoint, it indulges in meta brilliance with a story about former President Richard Nixon assuring an injured man he will be fine moments before he dies. Gosling’s reaction is the equivalent of every literal-minded person wanting nothing more than information -- the "I'll just read the Wikipedia entry" type. Crowe’s performance in the moment is a plea for the power and necessity of storytelling -- all about the experience of being swept up in a well-spun tale. The fact that this is done as a joke rather than with an overbearing earnestness is all the better -- that it gets recalled and paid off with a perfect visual gag in a pool during the movie’s climax makes it great.

Much like his script (he got his start in Hollywood doing the screenplays for films like Lethal Weapon), Black’s direction is a matter of function above all else. He sets up geography better than most directors, particularly in a scene at a LA porn king’s house party, which features a fist fight and shootout in and around a hot tub, plus a car chase away from the house. Never once does Black lose a sense of where his characters are at a given moment, and he uses their separation to increase suspense -- “How are they going to reach each other in time to help?” being the main question on the audience’s minds rather than any confusion.

Black is not blazing a new cinematic trail with The Nice Guys, but he does not need to. His charms lie in creating a seamlessly constructed piece of entertainment that goes the extra mile by making its characters’ problems as relatable as it gets. After all, who can’t understand someone wanting to overcome their own issues to get to a happier place? Who hasn’t felt the failures that come along with improving yourself? And most importantly, who doesn’t fear that they will never stop getting in their own way? That’s some deep, dark, “keep you up at night” stuff, and The Nice Guys turns it all into witty, lovable pop culture in order to make the questions palatable.

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