Mark Reviews Movies

The Nice Guys


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Shane Black

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, Kim Basinger

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:56

Release Date: 5/20/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 19, 2016

There's nothing particularly special about the plot of The Nice Guys. It's a fairly typical buddy-cop comedy, in which two, diametrically opposed characters are forced by circumstances to come together, put aside their differences, and solve a case. Movies like this, though, live or die, not on the intricacies of the plot, but on the dynamics between the disparate partnersóboth in terms of the characters and the actors portraying them.

This one features Russell Crowe, as a hard-edged tough guy with a moral compass that allows for extra-legal or downright illegal actions, and Ryan Gosling, as a dedicated private detective whose life has taken a tragic turn and whose work practices have taken a considerable slide as a result. In a typical pairing, Crowe's character simply would be the straight man to Gosling's gumshoe, and he is when the two are together.

Co-writers Shane Black, who also directed, and Anthony Bagarozzi don't let Crowe's Jackson Healy and Gosling's Holland March off that easily, though. March is more than a joke. He's more than a guy whose foolishness requires a straight-faced counterpart to highlight just how foolish he is, and Healy is too reckless in his own right to really serve as a balancing juxtaposition to March's own brand of irresponsibility. He is, after all, a guy who gets paid to put the hurt on anyone who crosses someone with enough money to cover his fee. For his part, March has no problem taking money on cases that he's certain will go nowhere or dragging out an investigation to get more money.

That the title is a misnomer is part of the jokeóbut only part of it. They aren't as bad as, say, the bad guys they encounterópeople who have essentially done away with any kind of moral compass and have no regard for human life (The film makes sure that we notice two instances in which a villain's stray bullet has deadly consequences for an innocent bystander). The two good guys are only "good," in effect, by process of comparison. One might think that means they don't intentionally kill anyone, but that's not accurate, either. Healy does, albeit not, we gather, for money, and only when he has a "good" reason.

Both Healy and March are seriously lacking in the accountability department, too. With his violence-for-cash profession, Healy's flaws in this regard should be apparent. March is a widower and single father whose wife died in an accident. He blames himself, and since then, he has become a barely functioning alcoholic. A running gag through the film is the way March's sleuthing style depends upon him more or less stumbling upon clues. The plot underneath those clues revolves around March and Healy maneuvering through Los Angeles circa 1977 to solve the cases of a murdered porn actress ("Young woman," March amends the description, trying to be considerate; "Porno young woman") and the missing daughter (Margaret Qualley) of a government official (Kim Basinger).

If the plot doesn't matter, the relationship between the leads is fairly typical, and the main characters' flaws make them more complementary than contradictory, what, then, is the reason the film works? There's an answer to each of the three "if"s.

First, Black and Bagarozzi have ensured that the plot really doesn't matter with the film's carefree, cynical tone. Everything here borders on parody without quite crossing the line (although March's goofiness almost pushes it thereónot in a bad way). There are the usual action sequences, of course, but even those are played for laughs, such as a fight that involves a hot tub and a shootout that the heroes would rather avoid than join. So, too, are the story's baddies, like a duo of assassins (Keith David and Beau Knapp) who get more than they bargain for when they try to put pressure on Healy.

Second, the performances from Crowe and Gosling address the second "if" and kind of speak to the third one, too. These are smart comedic performances, which more than compensates for the feeling that the pairing is ordinary. They're contrasting performances, too, with Crowe playing the jokes straight (a perfectly timed spit-take being a notable exception) and Gosling indulging in a manic yet entirely cohesive brand of comedy. He whines and wails, channels Lou Costello upon discovering a dead body, and expertly executes a string of physical gags that simultaneously feel intricately choreographed and spontaneous (Of particular note is a scene in which he tries to play tough while sitting on a toilet with his pants around his ankles).

The primary answer to the third "if," though, comes from the character of March's daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). At first glance, she seems to be the generic precocious kid who knows more than she probably should and wants to get in on the action. As the more darker elements of the plot are unveiled (leading to a lot of bloody violence and revealing a conspiracy about the automobile industry) and the protagonists' personal foibles become graver, though, Holly serves as the film's moral anchor, as well as the sole voice of reason. Yes, it is also a jokeóthat this kid has a better, more competent presence of mind than our heroes.

The character might also be an easy out for Black and Bagarozzi, giving them the freedom to let the protagonists run wild without any significant consequences (At a certain point, March begins to think he's invincible, so it's not just moral or legal repercussions), while still acknowledging that these guys are trouble to themselves and others. Whatever the rationale, it works, since the inclusion of a third partner in The Nice Guys gives this familiar material a welcome extra dimension.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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