With its wonderfully bizarre cold open, which simultaneously announces the tone of the film and acts as a disturbed youth’s wet-dream, “The Nice Guys” points to the cheap seats. While the film has to settle for a respectable double, its journey to second base is filled with boundlessly amusing dialogue and contagious fun, which is all that really matters. You see, movies are like terrorism: execution is everything.
It’s 1977, which means Omar Sharif can work as the butt of a joke, Tim Allen is a respected comedian and porno can pass as subversive art. The death of an “actress” conjures up two different jobs for two different detectives, Jackson Healy and Holland March, played by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, respectively. Their jobs intersect and they assume that two heads are better than one going forward — a common misconception in buddy movies. “One head distracts from the other in a gunfight” would be a more apt idiom.
The plot is unimportant; it’s the standard fare of a detective story, in that there’s twists and turns, sleight of hand and the inevitable web of lies. What really matters here is the chemistry of the two leads and the sharpness of the screenplay. Consider “The Nice Guys” two for two. Whoever has hold of the script is a rich man, because it’s full of gems. However, a couple of scenes feel a tad like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch cut for time, such as a prolonged bit that involves questioning some pretentious protesters who are playing dead. It’s a funny concept that never comes to life.
But where the writing shines is in the film’s digressions. March’s contentious relationship with ventriloquists demands more screen time. And in an era of big-budget movie making where mindless collateral damage is condemned by critics, and retroactively by the films themselves, “The Nice Guys” shamelessly revels in it. The best example, by far, is when Healy dodges a bullet at a costume party, which ends up in a guest dressed like a tree, who appears to stay in character as he collapses.
Speaking of trees, Healy and March don’t fall far from the thinning, moribund family tree of fictional detectives. They’re two miserable wise-asses who need to be in constant motion, lest they have time to ruminate on their few, but potent deficiencies. Gosling’s loud portrayal of the spineless, squealing Holland reminds me of Cary Grant’s performance in “Arsenic and Old Lace”: a cartoon character endlessly horrified by real world events. Gosling and Crowe play off each other so well, I now yearn for “The Nice Guys Meet Frankenstein” or “The Nice Guys Go to Singapore.”
Every victory for Healy and March is a result of falling, whether that be falling down, falling up or something falling in their lap. It’s like Shane Black took the deus ex machina trope and designed a film around it. And “The Nice Guys” is every bit as fun as that sounds.
3.5 out of 5