Published May 19, 2016By combining the "dumb guys in over the heads" comic sensibilities of the Coen brothers with the excess of '70s porn culture explored in Boogie Nights and the noir-ish plot complexities of Chinatown, Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3) has made one of the funniest but also most deeply satisfying movies of the year in The Nice Guys.
Following the death-by-suicide of porn star Misty Mountains, private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is hired to investigate the circumstances, which quickly turns into a search for a girl named Amelia (The Leftovers' Magaret Qualley) whose connection to Mountains is not immediately clear. March soon encounters Jackson Healy (beefy Russell Crowe), who's also been hired to track down Amelia with less scrupulous methods, but also with fewer daytime glasses of scotch in him than March is managing. They both find themselves in over their heads as the case quickly encapsulates Mountains' shady porn dealings, the machinations of Amelia's group of environmental activists and government corruption involving the Detroit auto industry.
March's drinking and Healy's penchant to break arms first and maybe ask relevant questions later make them a rather incompetent duo; only March's 13-year-old daughter (Australian newcomer Angourie Rice) seems to have enough of a clue to help connect the dots. She ends up tagging along and witnessing some really inappropriate adult behaviour — not just from dad, who drinks enough to have hallucinations that warrant being voiced by Hannibal Buress, but the types of parties that get thrown by porn moguls in 1977.
While Shane Black's script, co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi, gets plenty of laughs from the bumbling of both men (and March in particular), The Nice Guys features a lot of intense and occasionally surprising violence, which Black also plays for some laughs. Rarely has an action movie successfully injected as much slapstick dark comedy into the middle of life-and-death encounters.
The Nice Guys is a better movie than Black's cult classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but they share similar sensibilities; then, he got terrific and unexpected performances from Val Kilmer and pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr., and manages the same here with Crowe and Gosling, two actors known for very serious dramatic roles and not so much for their comedy chops. Black maximizes their performances by simply letting them take their roles and performances very, very seriously — just as their characters do as "investigators" — and let that commitment, and the circumstances around them, do the comedic work for them.
The late '70s setting is utilized for two good reasons, and Black avoids one major pitfall: L.A. in 1977 is ripe for parody just for existing in an era of gas shortages, nuclear panic and bell bottoms; detective work is fundamentally harder and more interesting without the internet and cell phones; and Black seems completely uninterested in soundtracking his movie with era-appropriate hits, the easiest default to identify this as a "period" piece.
The movie is concerned enough with a couple of bumbling idiots who accidentally find themselves in a high-stakes game that it could have been called "The Dumb Guys," but by building a surprisingly dark and sophisticated conspiracy story around them, Shane Black has snuck a really smart movie into summer blockbuster season. (Warner Bros.)